The Limits of Loyalty

Is loyalty a virtue or a sin?  Does the world need more of it, or less?

Donald Trump, in a controversial speech to the Boy Scouts of America on Monday, endorsed the former in no uncertain terms, rambling to the gathering of thousands of teenage boys, “As the Scout Law says, ‘A scout is trustworthy, loyal’—we could use some more loyalty, I will tell you that.”

The subtext of this remark was clear enough to anyone paying attention to current events.  Throughout the past week, the president has been very publicly steaming about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump feels betrayed him by recusing himself from the administration’s Russia imbroglio—and also, apparently, by not investigating Hillary Clinton for God knows what.  In an ongoing series of tweets, Trump has tarred Sessions as “beleaguered” and “VERY weak,” effectively goading him into resigning, lest the abuse continue indefinitely.

The implication—or explication, as the case may be—is that Sessions’s duty as America’s chief law enforcement officer is to protect Donald Trump from the law, not to defend the law against those who violate it, up to and including the commander-in-chief himself.  As Trump made plain in an interview with the New York Times, his hiring of Sessions was predicated on the AG serving the president—not the Constitution.

But then it’s not only Sessions who has found himself the object of Trump’s wrath on the question of absolute allegiance.  Let’s not forget James Comey, the former director of the FBI, who famously met with the president in January, when the latter said, point-blank, “I need loyalty; I expect loyalty.”  Comey’s eventual sacking—like Sessions’s, should it occur—was the result of being insufficiently faithful to the man in the Oval Office.  Of daring to think, and act, for himself.

As someone who has never been leader of the free world—nor, for that matter, held any position of real responsibility—I must confess that I remain skeptical about the value of unconditional submission in one’s day-to-day life and generally regard free agency as the far superior of the two virtues.  Indeed, I would argue (to answer my own question) that “virtue” might be altogether the wrong word to use in this context.

When thinking about loyalty, the question you must ask yourself is:  What, exactly, am I being loyal to?  Is it to a set of principles, or to another human being?  And if you are merely dedicating yourself to a person, what has he or she done to deserve it, and what, if anything, will you be getting in return?

Certainly, the spectacle of Trump demanding total fealty to Trump is the most extreme—and most cartoonish—manifestation of this latter category, since the president has shown minimal interest in reciprocating whatever devotion happens to come his way.  Except with members of his immediate family (so far, anyway), Trump’s modus operandi is to ask for everything and give nothing back.  Part and parcel of being a textbook sociopath, Trump views his fellow humans purely as a means to an end and rarely, if ever, stops to think how he might make their lives easier in the process.  It does not occur to him to treat people with respect for its own sake.  If anything, he views empathy as a sign of weakness.

This behavior may well represent an abuse and perversion of an otherwise useful human trait, but that hardly makes a difference when considering the enormous political power of the man doing the perverting.

Which brings us—by way of analogy—to Adolf Hitler.

In Germany, beginning in 1934, all members of the armed forces were required to swear a solemn oath—not to Germany, mind you, but to the man at the top.  This vow, or Reichswehreid, read, in part, “To the Leader of the German Empire and people, Adolf Hitler, supreme commander of the armed forces, I shall render unconditional obedience and […] at all times be prepared to give my life for this oath.”  As you might’ve guessed, soldiers who refused to comply tended not to live very long.

If that seems like an extreme and sui generis example of a personality cult run amok, let me remind you of the moment in March 2016 when, at a campaign rally in Florida, Donald Trump implored his adoring crowd to raise their right hands and pledge, “I do solemnly swear that I—no matter how I feel, no matter what the conditions, if there’s hurricanes or whatever—will vote […] for Donald J. Trump for president.”

While a stunt like that doesn’t exactly sink to the depths of the Hitler oath—Trump wasn’t about to jail or murder anyone who opted out—it is nonetheless a profoundly creepy thing for a presidential candidate in a democratic republic to say—particularly when you recall that Trump once reportedly kept an anthology of Hitler’s speeches at his bedside table.  This for a man who can otherwise go years without reading a single book.

That Trump evidently views Hitler as some sort of role model—and is haphazardly aping the Führer’s stylistic flourishes on the campaign trail—ought to give us serious pause about where his own fidelity lies—is it to the nation or himself?—and about whether his pronouncement at the Republican National Convention that he—and he alone—is capable of steering America forward was less an expression of supreme confidence than a barely-veiled threat against those who doubt that a serially-bankrupt con artist is the best man to preside over the largest economy in the world.

The problem, you see, is not that Trump is Hitler.  (He’s not.)  The problem is that he wants to be Hitler—and Mussolini and Saddam Hussein and Vladimir Putin and every other national figurehead who has managed to wield near-absolute authority over his citizenry—often with sarcastically high approval ratings and totally unburdened by the institutional checks and balances that America’s founders so brilliantly installed in 1787.

While Trump’s ultimate ambitions might not be as violent or imperial as those of the men I just listed—in the end, he seems to care about little beyond self-enrichment—the central lesson of the first six months of his administration—plus the first 71 years of his life—is that there is nothing he will not try to get away with at least once.  No sacred cow he will not trample.  No rule he will not bend.  No sin he will not commit.  He is a man of bottomless appetites and zero restraint.  Left to his own devices, he would spend his entire presidency arranging meetings—like the one with his cabinet last month—whose participants did nothing but praise him for being the greatest man in the history of the world.  A Kim Jong-un of the West.

Remember:  The sole reason Trump hasn’t already turned the United States into a full-blown banana republic is that he can’t.  Constitutionally-speaking, the only things stopping him from indulging his basest instincts are Congress, the courts and the American public, and we’ve seen how tenuous all three of those institutions can be.  Should the remaining branches of government fulfill their obligations as a check on executive overreach and malfeasance, we’ll be fine.  Should they falter—thereby providing Trump the untrammeled loyalty he demands—we’ll be in for the longest eight years of our lives.

Darkness on the Edge of Town

On the evening of November 5, 1980, a 31-year-old rock ‘n’ roller in a sweaty white shirt stood at a microphone in Tempe, Arizona, and ominously intoned to a crowd of thousands, “I don’t know what you guys think about what happened last night, but I think it’s pretty frightening.”

With that, he launched into one of his signature fist-pounding anthems, whose opening lines declare:

Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland

Got a head-on collision smashin’ in my guts, man

I’m caught in a crossfire that I don’t understand

The man on the stage was Bruce Springsteen, and the previous day’s “what happened” was the election of Ronald Reagan as the 40th president of the United States.  The song, “Badlands,” was written and recorded two years prior, but its driving rhythm section and portentous lyrics seemed to capture the national mood as no other track could—at least among the American left.  It was as though Bruce had been saving it up for just the right moment.  As it turned out, the dawn of Reaganism was it.

Indeed, the prince of the Jersey Shore would spend the balance of the ensuing decade fortifying his reputation as an apostle of blue-collar America—the embodiment of the desperate, unwashed workingmen who felt betrayed and abandoned by their country and government in favor of the upper 1 percent.  In this milieu, the Reagan administration, with its tax-cutting, “trickle-down” economics, would, in short order, become Enemy No. 1.

From that concert in Tempe onward, Springsteen’s whole musical identity assumed a more political bent, his songs coming to reflect the times as much as the dreams and inner torment of the artist himself.  Where Bruce’s earlier work breezily spoke of young love on the boardwalk and hemi-powered drones screaming down the boulevard, by 1978 he was already losing faith in the institutions that had raised him—the government, the social compact, his family—and increasingly threaded this perceived societal drift into otherwise personal tales of love, hatred, anxiety and midnight drag racing.  (A typical lyric from that time:  “You’re born with nothing / and better off that way / soon as you’ve got something they send / someone to try and take it away.”)

Because this heightened social awareness and unease coincided with the Reagan Revolution—and also because of his open advocacy for such people as John Kerry, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—Springsteen has long (and rightly) been associated with the Democratic Party and its base.  So it came as something of a shock for me when I recently re-listened—for, say, the dozenth time—to Springsteen’s 1982 album, Nebraska, and found that, song-for-song—in some cases, like-for-line—the record seemed to speak directly to the plight of the prototypical Trump voter in 2016.  Contained in those tracks—and, by implication, in the mind of the man who wrote them—are most (if not all) of the fears, disappointments and anger that drove millions of bitter, hardworking citizens—many of whom voted for Obama twice—to turn to Donald Trump as the last best hope to save the soul of their beloved, beleaguered country.  In many ways, Springsteen’s Nebraska—35 years old in September—serves as their voice.

You could begin with the album’s title track, which recounts the (true) story of a Bonnie and Clyde-like duo who senselessly murdered their way across the Midwest in the 1950s, only to conclude, “They wanted to know why I did what I did / well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”  Immediately following is “Atlantic City”—a concert staple to this day—whose protagonist bemoans, “I got a job and tried to put my money away / but I got debts that no honest man can pay.”  Worse still, in “Johnny 99,” we learn, “They closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late that month / Ralph went out lookin’ for a job / but he couldn’t find none.”  And so forth.

What is most consistent, and ominous, in these tracks—today and in their original context—is how inexorably the weight of economic despair eventuates in violence.  Along with the aimless, homicidal couple in the opener (“Me and her went for a ride, sir / and ten innocent people died”), the man in “Atlantic City” is forced to join the mob to make ends meet (“Last night I met this guy / and I’m gonna do a little favor for him”), while Ralph, aka Johnny 99, knocks off a town clerk in a drunken rage, later pleading to a judge, “The bank was holdin’ my mortgage / and they were gonna take my house away / Now I ain’t sayin’ that makes me an innocent man / But it was more ‘n all this that put that gun in my hand.”

Indeed, experience teaches us that certain acts of violence spring purely from desperation, hunger and a general lack of good options in life, and the ordeal of the 2016 election did little to disabuse us of this notion.

To wit:  It is a matter of public record that the core of Donald Trump’s minions viewed themselves (rightly or wrongly) as the most economically stretched class of people in a generation—folks without jobs, prospects or any real political power—and that Trump’s campaign, in turn, was the most physically intimidating in modern times, with scores of campaign rallies descending into fist fights, the aggressors egged on by the candidate himself, who bellowed, “If you see somebody with a tomato, knock the crap out of them,” adding, “I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.”  (He didn’t, of course.)

Certainly nothing good can come from lashing out at your own society in such an ugly way.  Yet Nebraska does not look down on its characters when they commit despicable acts.  Bleak as it is, the album is fundamentally an exercise in empathy for those whose circumstances have led them to feel that a life of crime is the only choice they have left.  In their shoes, are we so sure that we wouldn’t behave the same way?

Encouragingly, perhaps, Springsteen himself has not changed his view on this one whit.  In an interview with Rolling Stone last October—during which he couldn’t summon a single positive word for the president-to-be—he posited, “I believe there’s a price being paid for not addressing the real cost of the deindustrialization and globalization that has occurred in the United States for the past 35, 40 years, and how it’s deeply affected people’s lives and deeply hurt people to where they want someone who says they have a solution.  And Trump’s thing is simple answers to very complex problems. […] And that can be very appealing.”  Asked if he is “surprised” to learn that the man who inspired his 1995 song “Youngstown”—an elegy to the American steel industry—is now a Trump supporter, Bruce responded, “Not really.”

Trump, he seems to agree, is what David Brooks once characterized as “the wrong answer to the right question.”

Which is all to say that Springsteen understood the American electorate in 2016 better than the Democratic Party—as, in their own way, did the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—and that unless the party makes a more honest reckoning with its relationship to America’s basket of deplorables, it will be quite some time before Democrats win back the House, the Senate, the presidency and the Supreme Court.

If you’ve lost Springsteen, you’ve lost America.

The New Abnormal

Donald Trump has been president for exactly six months.  By my calculations, that means he has 90 months to go before he’s done.

That’s right:  90 months.  Seven-and-a-half years.  Two presidential terms.

You heard it here first:  Trump is going to be re-elected in 2020, and he’s going to serve until January 20, 2025.  He will not be impeached.  He will not be removed.  He will not die.  And he will not resign.

That’s not a prediction.  That’s a goddamned guarantee.

I haven’t the slightest idea how he’s going to pull this off—Lord knows I didn’t foresee last year’s shenanigans three-and-a-half years in advance—but nor have I any doubt that he could, and almost surely will.  If recent U.S. history teaches us anything, it’s that if you can win a presidential election once, you can win a presidential election twice.  Four of our last five commanders-in-chief have done just that, and there is little reason to expect this trend to abate with the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Trump is going to be an eight-year national problem, and we might as well get used to it now.  Don’t expect him to disappear ahead of schedule, or to go gently into that good night.  He has spent the first 71 years of his life steadfastly refusing to yield his place in the national conversation, never giving anyone a moment’s peace.  Why would years 72 to 78 be any different?

They won’t be.  Trump is not going to change any part of his core identity before he dies, and perhaps the most essential among them is his primal, obsessive need for total victory—as he calls it, “winning.”  Knowing, as he does, that being a one-term president would be an abject humiliation and would brand him an electoral “loser” for all eternity—indeed, doubly so, considering his failure to secure the popular vote the first time around—he is surely prepared to do literally anything to prevent such an eventuality from happening, up to and including breaking every social and political norm that he hasn’t already violated.

Think he’s corrupt and unsavory now?  Just you wait, Henry Higgins.  Just you wait.

Of course, I could be getting carried away, allowing misguided cynicism to obscure certain realities that are staring us squarely in the face.  The obvious rejoinder to my dour political forecast—the one you will hear from every white-knuckled left-wing media source in America—is that the sheer weight of ridiculous scandal already engulfing the Trump administration will ultimately destroy it—if not now, then within a few months, and if not within a few months, then sometime between now and the end of the first term.  Trump forever being his own worst enemy—devoid of scruples, subtlety and any sense of civic responsibility—he will sooner or later cross a red line—legally and/or morally—that the American public will view as the proverbial last straw and will then demand Congress dispose of him once and for all, which its exasperated members will presumably be all-to-happy to do.

Such has become the reigning fantasy of the Trump era:  The assumption that after two-plus years of getting away with slaughtering one sacred cow after another, Trump will eventually say or do something so profoundly beyond the pale that the entire country will drop everything and say, “That does it.  This man can no longer be the president.”  Evidently, nothing he has done so far has risen to that level—including that time he bragged about having committed sexual assault.

In any case, the crux of this hopeful narrative is the basic fact of Trump’s terminally low approval ratings since entering the White House—numbers that seem to remain in the toilet irrespective of how he behaves on any given day.  While much was made of a recent Washington Post-ABC News survey that pegged the president’s support at a historically awful 36 percent, the truth is that his numbers have barely moved since the moment he took the oath of office.  (According to Gallup, Trump’s approval rating has ranged between 36 and 42 percent every day since April 29, and has never once risen above 46.)

How, you ask, could someone who has yet to garner the support of 50 percent of the public—and likely never will—possibly win the next presidential election under any circumstances?  It’s a sensible enough question—or it would be, except for the 16 U.S. presidents who have done exactly that.

That’s right:  More than one in three of America’s commanders-in-chief achieved ultimate power without winning a majority of the popular vote.  Of those 16 men, five (including Trump) lost the national popular vote outright, while the remaining 11 won a plurality of the popular vote but were denied an absolute majority thanks to multiple opponents who split the vote amongst themselves.  Three chief executives—Clinton, Wilson and Cleveland—managed to pull this off twice, so who is to say it will not happen again in 2020?

Having won by losing once already, Trump plainly understands that he doesn’t need broad support on anything to eke out a victory 42 months hence.  Gifted a lousy Democratic opponent and a halfway-viable third party nominee—both of which are entirely within the realm of plausibility—Trump could squeak back into the White House with little more than 40 or 41 percent.  As ever, the only number that truly matters is 270—a majority in the Electoral College—which Trump could hit merely by holding 26 of the 30 states he won last November.

And how will he accomplish that?  By doing what he does best:  Bluffing.

Regardless of his actual domestic record after four years, he will proclaim himself the most successful chief executive in history.  Regardless of the findings of Robert Mueller’s investigation, he will declare himself not guilty on all charges.  Regardless of whatever happens in North Korea, the Middle East and God knows where else, he will boast of having defeated ISIS, staunched illegal immigration and Made America Great Again.

All such behavior will be perfectly predictable, stemming, as it does, from Trump’s nature as a delusional narcissist who is somehow also a world-class con artist.  As Sarah Ellison writes in this month’s Vanity Fair, “[Trump] is a pathogen, doing what pathogens do, and as surprised as anyone to have found himself replicating in the nation’s bloodstream.”

The question, then, is how many marks Trump’s act will attract this time around, and whether enough of them will turn out to the polls on November 3, 2020.

It is my view that enough of them will, and that this miserable circus will go on for precisely 2,922 days longer than most people expected on November 7, 2016.  Despite the incompetence and despite the fraud, Trump will remain leader of the free world for eight full years.

Why?  Because, fundamentally, Americans are leery of abandoning a known quantity who wields supreme power.  We like stability and familiarity in our leaders, and while Trump does not exactly embody the former, he has long mastered the art of distracting America from one controversy by bungling into a new one, thereby resetting the 24-hour media game clock and nudging the goalposts of moral outrage ever-farther down the field.

For all the warnings on the left to never accept Trump and his methods as “the new normal,” it is human nature to adapt to a changing environment over time.  Like the famous frog who adjusts to a gradually-warming pot of water, the American public has learned to assimilate the president’s singularly bizarre and dangerous behavior as an organic feature of the current political landscape.  His unpredictability has itself become predictable, and millions of our fellow citizens take real, if perverse, comfort from not knowing what the hell he’s going to do next.

George Carlin once said, “When you’re born in this world, you are given a ticket to the freak show.  When you’re born in America, you are given a front row seat.”  It was in that same spirit that, in June 2015—as the campaign was just beginning—The Onion ran a story, faux-written by Trump himself, titled, “Admit It:  You People Want To See How Far This Goes, Don’t You?”

Well:  don’t we?