The Popularity Paradox

Woody Allen has always made a point never to read reviews of his own films.  The way he sees it, you cannot accept compliments without also accepting criticism, and since he has no desire to indulge the latter, he has opted to disregard both and just keep chugging along on his own terms, heedless of how the rest of the world might react to the finished product.

While one emulates Woody Allen at one’s peril, his philosophy of not being preoccupied with others’ opinions is a sound one—an idea that perhaps ought to be taken more to heart by the average American, and especially by not-so-average Americans like the one currently living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

As things stand, if there’s one thing we know for sure about Donald Trump, it’s that he only cares about what other people think.  In every facet of his life, our president is essentially a human mood ring whose hue is perfectly synchronized with however his adoring public seems to perceive him at a given moment:  If they’re happy, he’s happy.  He quantifies all Earthly success in terms of ratings, status and wealth, and it has become abundantly clear that assuming the presidency has had absolutely no impact on this profoundly amoral view of the world.

While this dynamic worked beautifully for Trump as a candidate—“My poll numbers are bigger than yours!”—the fact of actually being commander-in-chief has introduced an unattractive complication into Trump’s perceived cult of infallibility:  At this moment, scarcely one-third of the country thinks he’s doing a decent job, and whenever he tries to make good on his core campaign pledges, his efforts are thwarted by either Congress or the courts.

This sure ain’t what Mr. Winning had it mind when he signed up.  Much as how Richard Nixon famously articulated, “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal,” Trump entered this job figuring that he could get away with anything so long as a majority of the public approved it—and that if the public didn’t approve it, he could simply claim the polls are wrong, as he did throughout the latter half of 2016.

In effect, he thought he could be an American Mussolini—ruling by executive fiat and steamrolling Congressional opposition through direct appeals to his base—and many of us had full faith that he would succeed, or at least give it the old college try.

Amidst all this fear that Trump would destroy American democracy as we know it (which he still has ample time to do, of course), we didn’t necessarily give much thought to what might happen were Trump to falter—how he would respond to a sustained period of fecklessness and public ennui, which we seem to have entered following last week’s aborted GOP healthcare bill, to say nothing of the ongoing Russian intrigue that has been piling up since before January 20.

Supposing this stench of failure doesn’t dissipate anytime soon, how does Trump justify his continued existence in government?  In the absence of being liked—nay, in the absence of “winning”—what exactly does Trump stand for in his own mind?  In the teeth of widespread public antipathy to his performance as America’s head of state—and “performance” is definitely the right word—what is the guiding principle that’ll carry him from one conflict to the next?

See, when there was a clear sense of what specific actions would sate the reptile minds of his minions—say, imposing a travel ban on Muslims or building a wall along the Mexican border—Trump could confidently put pen to paper and congratulate himself on a job well done.  Easy peasy.

What he didn’t count on—obvious as it was to everyone else—was that half of his campaign promises were unconstitutional, while the other half were fiscally insane.  Accordingly, short of torching both houses of Congress and crowning himself emperor (perhaps he’s saving that for the second term?), Trump was destined to face serious pushback to his agenda within minutes of “making America great again.”  Now that a major chunk of his policy portfolio is on life support or worse, he may need to decide whether playing to the angry mob was such a hot strategy after all.

Historically, presidents with exceptionally low approval ratings have taken the Woody Allen view—that is, to effect a conspicuous detachment from the passions of the unwashed masses, appealing instead to future historians as the ultimate arbiters of the rightness of their executive decisions.  As we know from such men as Harry Truman and George H.W. Bush, there is some credence to the theory that being unpopular in your own time doesn’t necessarily preclude you from achieving immortality—or at least respectability—a generation or two after the fact.

The catch, however, is that Truman and Bush were men of decency, conviction and patriotism:  Even in their lowest moments, they believed to their boots that they were trying to do the right thing and were prepared to defend their records until the last dog died.  In acting against the will of the majority, they evoked the classical ethos—championed by no less than the Founding Fathers—that the short-term desires of the people must occasionally be overruled in the long-term interest of the public.  In the long sweep of history, leaders who risked their reputations for the greater good of the country have been viewed very favorably, indeed.

Donald Trump is no such person.  Day in and day out, for 70 years running, our current president has only ever concerned himself with, well, himself.  Whether on top of the world or with his back against the wall, he prioritizes Trump first, the Trump family second, and everyone else not at all.  Matt Taibbi was perhaps being cheeky when he mused in Rolling Stone that “Trump would eat a child in a lifeboat,” but the image rings true:  In Trump’s eyes, no human being has value except for what he or she can do for Donald.

Which leads us to arguably the most essential, inescapable fact about Trump as president:  Because he does not view human relations in moral terms—because he is a textbook sociopath with zero capacity for emotional growth—he can never be counted on to do the right thing, unless he does it by accident.  Unlike virtually all past presidents at one point or another, he will never face down his staunchest supporters and say, “I know you won’t approve what I’m about to do, but trust me, it’s for your own good.  Someday, you’ll thank me.”

What will he do over the next four (if not eight) years?  Presumably, what he always does:  When his approval rating is solid, he will sign whatever bill will keep those numbers up (e.g., the Muslim ban).  When his popularity tanks—as it has done pretty much this whole time—he will publicly throw a tantrum while privately using the executive branch as his own personal graft machine.  And when he manages to be both unpopular and ineffectual (e.g., failing to repeal Obamacare), he will do what he does best:  Pretend nothing happened, lose interest and walk away.

That’s what you get when you put an emotionally needy charlatan in charge of the largest economy on Earth:  Instability, immorality, ineptitude and intransigence.  A bumbling, crooked train ride to nowhere.

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The Man in the Tinfoil Hat

Correct me if I’m wrong, but is it possible that Donald Trump has been president for a full 61 days and not once claimed that 9/11 was an inside job?

I’ve scoured the internet for possible examples of such a statement from the sitting commander-in-chief, and so far, I’ve come up with nothing.  (For our purposes, we will discount this interview, since it was given on 9/11 itself, before anyone knew anything.)  As it turns out, in the decade-and-a-half since the worst terrorist attack on American soil, Trump has been totally, weirdly consistent in his view that the World Trade Center was brought down by Osama bin Laden and his minions in al Qaeda—and not, say, by a controlled explosion orchestrated by George W. Bush.  As far as our dear leader is concerned, the basic facts of 9/11 are settled science and not worth questioning further.

In light of all the nonsense that this administration has forced us to confront on a daily—if not hourly—basis, let us take a moment to appreciate the grace and maturity exhibited by the 45th president, vis-à-vis September 11, in accepting incontrovertible evidence as objective truth when there are other options open to him.

After all, this is the same guy who glanced at the cover of National Enquirer and proclaimed that Ted Cruz’s father was an accomplice in the Kennedy assassination.  The guy who propagated the theory that millions of non-citizens committed voter fraud because a German golfer told him so.  The guy who pushed hard for birtherism based on sources he never named, and who just recently accused President Obama of illegally wiretapping him based on documentation he has never produced.  And on and on and on.

Given all of this irresponsible rumor-mongering—this obsessive-compulsive embrace of political fairy tales when empirical facts are readily available—we are left to wonder:  Why isn’t Trump a 9/11 truther?  If he can so easily be made to believe that Obama could surreptitiously “tapp” the phones at Trump Tower, what’s stopping him from buying into a Bush administration that could surreptitiously blow up the World Trade Center to justify a war in Iraq?  As the leader of the free world, shouldn’t he be chomping at the bit to expose the would-be greatest crime of his least favorite Republican president once and for all?

You’d think he would be, and if Trump’s rank gullibility and ignorance aren’t sufficient reasons for him to be suspicious, surely his ongoing association with avowed 9/11 truthers would eventually do the job.

That’s right:  At this very moment, there are bona fide 9/11 skeptics within the president’s inner circle.  No, not his chief of staff or secretary of state—I’m talking about people he actually listens to and whose ideas he regularly repeats.  People like Alex Jones—aka the poor man’s Rush Limbaugh—who uses his radio program to scream about how the Sandy Hook massacre was fake and the government is using chemicals to turn frogs gay.  (Google it, kids!)  Or people like Andrew Napolitano, the Fox News contributor who originated this week’s bizarre claim that the (fictional) wiretaps in Trump Tower were the work of British spies.

These men are cooks, yet Trump’s ear seems to hang on their every word.  The president has come to view their hysterical ravings as gospel, thereby nudging paranoid gobbledygook into mainstream political culture.

We already know how pointlessly disruptive the presence of conspiracy theories can be on the daily operations of the U.S. government.  As we speak, actual intelligence officials are being paid actual wages to “investigate” something the president tweeted several weeks back at 3:35 a.m.  Two days ago, the director of the FBI was compelled to discuss those investigations in front of a congressional committee, all of whose members—like every other person in America—already knew those tweets were BS and hardly needed James Comey to confirm it.

The question now isn’t whether anything substantive will be gleaned from these mad accusations.  (It won’t.)  Rather, the question is how Trump will react to being proved a liar in half a dozen different ways.  If his past behavior is any indication—and it always is—he will continue insisting upon the rightness of his wrongness right up until every member of his administration abandons him, at which point he will sheepishly concede that no wiretap took place, quickly adding that he’s proud to have stubbornly suggested otherwise, since the ensuing investigation was the only way for us to know for sure that President Obama isn’t a criminal.  (As you’ll recall, this was roughly how he handled being humiliated about Obama’s birth certificate in 2011.)

However this particular national embarrassment is resolved, we can take it as a moral certainty that life under Trump will only get dumber from here, and you can take it from me that the longer he remains president, the greater the odds are that he will openly question 9/11.

Remember:  Trump’s solution to any big scandal is to create an even bigger scandal, and at the current rate his presidency is unraveling, it won’t be long before he burns through every other shiny object in his playbook and all that’s left is the Hail Mary.  Yes, the pushback will be fierce, and yes, the calls for his resignation will reach a veritable fever pitch.  But what would that matter to a man who believes he can generate his own reality and dismiss all opponents as the instruments of “fake news”?

In other words, the nation is currently engaged in a staring contest with someone who has no eyelids.  For all the unpredictability baked into our 45th president, we can be absolutely sure that a man who has skirted personal responsibility for the first 70 years of his life is not going to change course by the time he turns 71.  As Newton might’ve said, a president under a delusion will remain that way unless acted upon by a majority of the House and two-thirds of the Senate.

He’s Not Going Anywhere

If Donald Trump dropped dead tomorrow, his presidency would go down as a bizarre, disgraceful failure—albeit a unique, memorable and morbidly entertaining one.  Eight weeks in, the Trump administration has earned every ounce of skepticism that a majority of the public has nursed since Day 1, swerving wildly between quasi-authoritarian histrionics and clueless, bumbling ineptitude—“malevolence tempered by incompetence,” as one journalist put it.

In fact, Trump will not be checking out anytime soon, as doing so would violate Lewis Black’s first general rule of health:  “The good die young, but pricks live forever.”

Sorry, folks:  Not only is this roller coaster of shame real, but it has barely left the goddamned gate.  To ask—as one does—whether this president’s noxious mixture of cruelty, duplicity and cynicism can be sustained at its current velocity for another four years is to miss the main point.  Of course this horror show will continue exactly as it has begun:  Trump has neither the inclination nor the ability to behave as anything other than what he is.  His appeal, his “brand”—his very identity—hinges on his being a vindictive, ignorant jerk 24 hours a day, and he is not about to elevate the interests of the republic above his crippling need for unending praise and attention.

I bear this bad news having just re-watched Oliver Stone’s 1995 biopic Nixon—a film that, at this moment, I would recommend to every man, woman and child in America—or at least to anyone who requires some historical perspective on the seemingly unprecedented political quagmire we find ourselves in today.  As past presidents go, Richard Nixon is and will forever be the Rosetta Stone for understanding the machinations of Donald Trump, and Stone’s exuberant dramatization of Nixon’s life is an invaluable visual document of modern American history at its worst.

The first thing to recall about Nixon, our 37th president, is that he was an unconscionable scumbag.  A vile, ugly, selfish, paranoid, shameless, cynical, racist crook.  An opportunist and a con man.  A liar and a cheat.  A hollow shell of a human being who exerted bottomless energy toward political score-settling and practically none at all toward making America a better place to live.

The second thing to recall about Tricky Dick—and boy did that nickname say it all—is that, in his five-and-a-half years in office, he got a hell of a lot of things done, many of which unambiguously pushed our country forward in lasting, meaningful ways.  Apart from opening China to the West and fostering friendlier relations with the Soviet Union, Nixon became a partner in the environmental protection movement—signing the Clean Air Act and establishing the EPA—and was the first president to propose a universal government healthcare system that, nearly four decades later, would provide the basic framework for the Affordable Care Act—the 2010 bill that, as the aforementioned Lewis Black quipped, could’ve easily been called “Nixonicare.”

Nixon accomplished all of those commendable things and more, and we can’t pretend that he didn’t.  He was a ruthless, cold-hearted bastard, but by God, did he deliver.

The strategy of Oliver Stone’s movie—as embodied by its titanic lead performance by Anthony Hopkins—is to portray Nixon’s presidency as a grand Shakespearean tragedy, with its title character as a man who had the potential for everlasting greatness but was ultimately felled by his own flaws—in particular, his pathological habit of getting in his own way through bouts of self-pity and self-righteousness—weaknesses present in all national leaders, but rarely in such outrageously lethal doses.

Watching Nixon today, it becomes glaringly evident—if it weren’t already—how profoundly the worst instincts of Nixon mirror the worst instincts of Trump—not least the two men’s shared contempt for “elites” and any notion of a free press—with the latter president possessing even less self-control and self-awareness than the former, not to mention less intelligence and less expertise in anything even remotely to do with government.

If Nixon had a secret sauce—an X factor that enabled him to ascend great heights despite his deadly failings—it was the amoral political instincts that allowed him to personally profit from—and often stoke—divisions among different groups of people.  Domestically, this included the late-1960s racial tensions that helped him scare white people into voting for him in the first place.  Globally, this same habit was manifested in the rivalry between China and Russia, which Nixon was able to parlay into a set of mutually beneficial deals that America still enjoys to this day.

In other words, even Nixon’s finest moments were borne of his basest impulses.  The Machiavellian tactics that proved so effective in Beijing and Moscow originated from the same dark corner of the president’s brain that led him to brazenly interfere with the Watergate investigation and to use government money to cover it all up.  He was a crafty dealmaker and a common criminal, and you couldn’t have one without the other.

Which brings us to the most important—and most dangerous—lesson from the Nixon era:  Americans do not care if their president is corrupt, so long as his corruption redounds to the benefit of the public at large.  As a rule, if the economy is humming along and civil unrest is kept to a minimum, few citizens will bother to look very closely at any shenanigans that might be occurring in the executive branch.  As any pyramid scheme victim will tell you, why ask questions when everything is going so well?

Indeed, given the facts of history, it’s worth arguing that Nixon’s eventual (and richly deserved) downfall was as much a product of a depressed economy as of a sudden interest in rule of law by American voters.  While correlation does not necessarily prove causation, one can’t help but notice that, from early 1973 onward, Nixon’s free-falling approval rating tracked almost perfectly with the Dow Jones Industrial Average, suggesting that had the Watergate scandal not coincided with a general economic downturn—and, with it, a growing public disgust with Washington, D.C.—Nixon may well have rode out whatever allegations Congress and The Washington Post hurled at him throughout 1973 and 1974.  After all, he did win 49 states in the election of 1972.

Does this mean Donald Trump could commit a slew of impeachable offenses, yet remain in office for his entire term, provided the stock market doesn’t crash and the country doesn’t devolve into complete anarchy?

Yes, dear reader.  That’s exactly what it means.

If Nixon teaches us anything, it’s that the American presidency is just about the most secure job on planet Earth.  Despite all the malfeasance that has been committed over the last 228 years by most of the 44 men in that office, Nixon is still the only one to have departed prematurely without dying—and bear in mind that the “smoking gun” in Watergate only came to light as the result of an audio recording that Nixon himself made.  If those famous White House tapes didn’t exist—or were never publicly released—Nixon may well have stuck around until January 20, 1977, leading us to wonder if there’s anything the president of the United States cannot get away with, if he gives it the old college try.

With Donald Trump, that’s what we will continuously be finding out for the next 46 months, if not longer.  Having demonstrated, ad nauseam, that he cares about nothing but himself and is prepared to violate every political norm in the book in order to get what he wants, Trump is practically daring us to use the Constitution to yank him offstage, and if it turns out the American public doesn’t have the fortitude to pressure Congress into doing so, it is Trump who will have the last laugh, and we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.

Moonstruck

The first time I saw Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight was at its first public screening in New England—an event so well-attended that at least a dozen people ended up standing behind the last row, unable to find a seat but unwilling to ask management for a rain check.  (They were all still there when the end credits rolled.)

By contrast, the second time I saw Moonlight—about a month later on a Friday afternoon—I had the entire left side of the 300-seat auditorium to myself, with maybe four or five other souls scattered about here and there.

Without question, those were the two most memorable movie-going experiences of my year, but if I could only save one, it would be the latter.

As a rule, of course, going to the cinema is a fundamentally communal experience—an occasion for hundreds of total strangers to gather in front of a giant screen and draw energy from each other’s presence.  For any film that demands an audible reaction from its audience—say, a comedy or a horror flick—the power of the crowd is essential to one’s overall enjoyment and cannot be replicated in any other milieu.

Moonlight is not that kind of film.  As a piece of drama, its effectiveness is in no way dependent upon how many eyes are watching it at a given moment, and its cumulative impact on one’s consciousness is at once so violent and so personal that you almost cease being aware that you are in a public place.  It’s an out-of-body experience for which no other bodies are required.

To see Jenkins’s film in a packed house, then, is itself a singular phenomenon—not a shared journey among 300 individuals so much as 300 separate journeys occurring simultaneously in the same room.  Because Moonlight has so little in the way of plot—because its hero is so soft-spoken, its agenda implied rather than explicated—you emerge from the theater realizing that no other person in the hall saw the exact same movie you did, just as a great painting looks slightly different from one patron to the next.

As I left that opening night screening—probably the heaviest concentration of African-Americans and gays that I’ve ever encountered in a movie theater—I hadn’t the slightest idea what anyone else was thinking.  As the movie played, some would occasionally chuckle at a not-especially-funny line, and there was a fair share of hooting and hollering at the shocking development at the end of Act 2 (the one involving a chair).  On the whole, however, the abiding response from that crowd was silence—both during and after the feature—as if their inklings of what this film is about were still gestating in their minds as they made their way to the exit.

Driving home—both shaken and stirred—I realized I wasn’t entirely sure what I thought of Moonlight, either, so why should I expect it from anyone else?  While I was confident that something fairly extraordinary had happened and that it would be quite a while before I fully recovered from whatever the hell it was, only later was I able to fathom the degree to which Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney had all but reinvented the wheel of storytelling—at least when it came to blackness and masculinity—and only then could I begin to account for the sheer intensity of feeling that the movie aroused in me as few movies ever have.

In truth, it was only when I saw Moonlight again—with four weeks of reflection in between—that I could be sure, beyond doubt, that my initial impressions were not a figment of my imagination—that, if anything, they weren’t enthusiastic enough.  Sitting in that barren theater—just me, Chiron and a whole bunch of empty space—I found myself elevated to a realm of higher consciousness that only the most transcendent films can take you.  For 111 minutes, the rest of the world seemed to disappear and the only thing that mattered was what would happen to Chiron next.

To be honest, I’m still a little nervous about examining my unconditional love for Moonlight too closely, out of fear that deconstructing the reasons why the film works will somehow cause it not to work in the future.  Having fallen hard for small, independent movies in the past, I am preternaturally wary of the moment when I suddenly snap out of it—when all the original passion drains from my body and I am left to wonder what all the fuss was about in the first place.  (I am told many relationships operate in more or less the same way.)

If there is any single reason to believe this will not happen—that Moonlight will shine like a beacon for as long as people watch movies—it is that every last frame is, in some way, an act of love.

In scene after scene, we are presented with moments of pure human compassion that rarely make their way into commercial cinema:  The love of Juan (Mahershala Ali) in rescuing Chiron from bullies and teaching him how to swim; the love of Teresa (Janelle Monáe) in providing Chiron dinner and an extra bed whenever his mother isn’t up to the job; the love of Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) in whisking Chiron to a beachside rendezvous that will change both of their lives forever; and, eventually, the love of Paula (Naomie Harris), in trying to atone for a lifetime of parental neglect that she knows, deep down, cannot be completely forgiven.

The great tension in Moonlight is how nearly all of these acts of kindness are counterbalanced by acts of enormous cruelty—sometimes by the exact same individuals—and it is in these moments that the film itself becomes Chiron’s guardian angel, always perched over his shoulder, regarding him as a scared, vulnerable child of God who demands dignity and respect but who, through a series of genetic accidents beyond his control, is consigned to a life of fear and dehumanization from which, at the end of the film, he is still struggling to be freed.

And yet he is a man and he deserves to be loved, and as he settles in for tea with his long-lost friend Kevin, we are given reason to hope that he may have finally found himself after a lifetime of being lost.  While we cannot know precisely how he might proceed in righting the ship of himself, we can take some comfort in the fact that Chiron, while fictional, is a rough composite of Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney—two men who grew up in similarly harrowing circumstances—surrounded on all sides by drugs, poverty and despair—yet who somehow survived, persevered and went on to make the best picture of 2016.