Cult 45

Way back in 2015, when the candidacy of Donald Trump struck most of America as a joke, many of us floated the theory—with tongue only half in cheek—that Trump was actually a Democratic Party plant, installed in the GOP primaries to discredit the entire Republican Party and ensure Hillary Clinton would be elected president in November 2016.

While history has rendered this hypothesis obsolete, there remains the underlying assumption upon which the theory was based, which is that Trump serves as a moral Rorschach test for every would-be conservative in America.

Posed as a question, the test is simply this:  How many of your so-called principles are you prepared to sacrifice on the altar of the most unprincipled man in America?  How many bridges are you willing to jump off before realizing that each one leads to nowhere?

If Donald Trump shot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue, would you still vote for him in 2020?

Of course, it was Trump himself who asserted early on that the answer to that last question is “yes” among his core supporters, and if the last three years have taught us anything, it’s that he couldn’t have been more right.

At this point in his presidency, Trump is not a public servant so much as a personality cult, and as the corruption piles up and more and more of his deputies get hauled off to prison, it is becoming increasingly obvious that there is a certain fraction of the American public—roughly 30 percent, although estimates vary—who are so emotionally invested in Trump—the man, the brand, the whatever—that no amount of criminality is strong enough to penetrate the bubble of loyalty that exists between the commander-in-chief and his fellow travelers, the latter of whom appear utterly incapable of seeing what is directly in front of their noses—namely, that the man they worship is a crook.

They’re not drinking the Kool-Aid.  They’re injecting it intravenously.

As with all personality cults, the fundamental problem isn’t the leader himself; it’s his followers.  Any schmuck can stand on a platform and declare himself king.  The question is whether there is a critical mass of people desperate and gullible enough to hand him the crown and obey his every command.  There is no con without a mark, and it remains truly frightening how many of them the 45th president has acquired and maintained from the moment he entered the political fray.

While Trump undoubtedly constitutes the most insidious personality cult in American life today, his is hardly the only one from which to choose.  Unseemly as it might sound, Republicans hardly have a monopoly on prostrating themselves to a populist politician who promises them the moon.

How else to describe the famous “Bernie Bros”?  You know them:  The far-left supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders who quote his über-progressive platform word-for-word and will expound for hours about how the 2016 primaries were rigged—rigged, I tell you!—against their beloved Bernie by the evil Democratic Party establishment.  Never mind that Hillary Clinton received 3.7 million more votes than Sanders, winning 34 contests to Sanders’s 23:  The point, sayeth the Bros, is that Sanders was the only Democratic contender who could’ve defeated Trump in 2016, and in 2020 it is he—and he alone!—who could pry Trump from power and usher his socialist utopia into existence.

Sure sounds cultish to me.

This is not to imply a moral equivalence between Sanders and Trump, only one of whom is a repugnant, shameless charlatan with no sense of basic human decency.  Say what you will about the junior senator from Vermont and his pie-in-the-sky ideas, but Sanders has shown not a whiff of the racism or xenophobia that—odious as they are in one person—can quickly grow dangerous and deadly when harnessed by millions of mindless lemmings who believe they are acting on the Dear Leader’s orders.

And yet, in the end, a cult is still a cult, and the unifying characteristic of all cults is mindlessness—i.e., the willful suspension of one’s intellectual faculties in service of a singular Great Man to whom all loyalty is owed and from whom all of life’s problems will be solved.  If the unquestioned adherence to Trump by the MAGA crowd takes this tendency to new heights—or should we say depths?—by and large, much the same was true for the most hardcore supporters of Barack Obama, whose very existence was seen as a panacea for all the partisan discord ravaging Washington, D.C., circa 2008.

In time, of course, a majority of Obama’s admirers came to realize that, for all his personal qualities, the 44th president could not walk on water after all, and was as capable of betraying his campaign promises as any commander-in-chief who came before him.

Will the aura of infallibility eventually break among those who worship Donald Trump—a man who, unlike Obama, seems to truly believe he can do no wrong?

Meet me on Fifth Avenue for the answer.

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A Woman in the House

Will 2018 be the year of the black woman in Boston?

Massachusetts’ primary elections will be held on September 4—the day after Labor Day, regrettably—and while there are several interesting intra-party races across the Bay State this season, far and away the most compelling is the Democratic nominating contest for the 7th congressional district between incumbent Michael Capuano and his challenger, Boston city councilor Ayanna Pressley.

District 7—encompassing most of Boston and a handful of surrounding towns—is the most ethnically and racially diverse in the state (only one-third of its residents are white), yet it has been represented for the last 20 years by Capuano, a straight white man, who has not faced a serious challenger from either party since his first campaign in 1998.

The main reason for this—apart from the historical tendency for incumbents to be re-elected at a near-100 percent rate—is that Capuano, 66, is an unabashed across-the-board liberal who has consistently spoken and voted in the interests of his constituents since the day he took office.  (Among other things, he boasts perfect ratings from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the Human Rights Campaign, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and the NAACP.)  As such, the good people of the 7th district have found little reason to make a change in who represents them on Capitol Hill.

Until now.

Ayanna Pressley, 44, who has been resoundingly re-elected to the Boston City Council biennially since 2009, is gunning for Capuano’s seat without any particular beef with his record or worldview.  Offered the chance to differentiate her political views from his, Pressley is wont to change the subject or talk herself into a corner, underlining the awkward fact that when it comes to the proverbial issues, there is virtually no daylight between these two candidates.  Line-by-line, pound-for-pound, Capuano and Pressley embody two sides of the same liberal coin.

Pressley’s real argument—enunciated in every interview and every debate—is that there is more to being a congressperson than having the right views or voting the right way.  That in a district where being left-of-center goes without saying, it is equally (if not more) important that a representative possess the life experience and perspective necessary to champion the needs of America’s demographic underdogs, of which her district contains multitudes.

As a black woman with a turbulent upbringing (she speaks of being the victim of multiple sexual assaults in her youth), Pressley presents herself as precisely the sort of person District 7 needs in 2018:  A poised, energetic, indefatigable advocate for her fellow women and people of color, prepared to stand toe-to-toe with House Republicans in defense of everything from abortion rights to criminal justice reform.  If she and Capuano are more-or-less ideologically interchangeable on paper, Pressley is the one with real skin in the game—and, by implication, will fight just a little bit harder for the kind of society her district wants and deserves.

The down-and-dirty truth is that Pressley is running for Congress as if Capuano didn’t exist—or, more precisely, as if his were an open seat and Capuano had no institutional advantage and deserved no benefit of the doubt.  (Capuano regularly cites his seniority as a virtue.)  She is running, in short, because she wants to—and why on Earth shouldn’t she?

Indeed, if this race weren’t a referendum on a 20-year incumbent, it would almost surely be Pressley’s to lose.  Beyond being a black woman in a minority-majority district, Pressley is the more polished public speaker of the two, as well as the more photogenic and the one more adept—for better or worse—at inspiring a rambunctious, loyal following among her would-be constituents.

Does this mean she’ll win the primary on September 4?  The polls say no—an August 2 survey had Capuano ahead, 48-35—but then again, the polls also said Joseph Crowley would beat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York on June 26, and look how well that went.

By any measure, Michael Capuano has been a faithful, passionate and effective representative of Massachusetts’ 7th district these past 20 years (I lived there for eight of them).  His defeat, should it occur, would be a major loss for the people of Boston.  Then again, a victory by Ayanna Pressley would almost surely be a major gain.