Buried Treasure

Today being December 22, it is still far too early in the year for me to come up with my ten favorite movies of 2017.  However, as I embark on the final stretch of my annual Oscar season binge, I offer a quintet of films from the past 12 months that the average viewer is likely to have missed but the smart, adventurous viewer will be gratified to have found.

PERSONAL SHOPPER

Nearly a decade since the Twilight series took America’s teenage girls by storm, who would’ve guessed that Kristen Stewart—known primarily for having had to choose for a lover between a vampire and a werewolf—would become one of the most hypnotic actresses in world cinema?  Yet here she is in Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper—a virtually unseen, low-budget thriller from last March—commanding our attention like few performers of her generation can, seemingly with no effort whatsoever.  Roger Ebert used to say the greatest actors were those who appear to do the least, and that’s Stewart here, playing a well-heeled personal assistant and spiritual medium desperately trying to communicate with her dead twin brother—a ghost with whom she shares a bond that, like the rest of the movie, is never fully explained and is all the more spellbinding as a result.  Available now on Showtime.

PATERSON

Officially a 2016 release, Jim Jarmusch’s characteristically quirky gem premiered in Boston at noon on January 20, and that’s exactly where I was when a certain real estate developer was being sworn in as America’s 45th commander-in-chief.  While the timing was mostly coincidental, Paterson proved the perfect antidote to the raging nihilism descending on Washington, D.C., at that time.  As Donald Trump bellowed about “American carnage” and the horrors of Muslims and migrants, here was a quiet little story about a municipal bus driver who spends his leisure time writing poetry and hanging out at the bar, silently pondering where his life might be headed.  It helps that he has an ebullient—and equally creative—wife (Golshifteh Farahani) waiting for him when he gets home—a reminder that love and marriage are less about material things than a shared commitment that transcends race, class and whether Brussels sprouts are a good thing to bake into a pie.

MAUDIE

Before Sally Hawkins took our breath away as a nonverbal janitor who befriends a mysterious sea monster in The Shape of Water, she proved equally captivating in this altogether different cinematic animal, directed by Aisling Walsh, about Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis.  Profoundly shy and afflicted by severe arthritis, Lewis is portrayed by Hawkins as an uncommonly generous, patient and heroic woman who navigates a difficult relationship with a cruel man (Ethan Hawke) through playful manipulation of his weaknesses and, eventually, the discovery of her remarkable—and financially lucrative—skills as a painter.  Like Paterson, Maudie is both the portrait of a marriage—in this case, a real one—and also a short treatise on creativity and the unlikely places it can be found.

THE FLORIDA PROJECT

It may seem facile to describe a movie about white people as “the Moonlight of 2017,” yet Sean Baker’s follow-up to 2015’s Tangerine nonetheless bears certain key similarities to last year’s surprise Oscar winner and achieves greatness for many of the same reasons.  Like Barry Jenkins’s film, The Florida Project burrows into a Sunshine State community that is often ignored—in this case, itinerant poor folks who hole up in cheap motels near Disney World for short periods of time—and luxuriates in the life, struggle, and humanity within.  While Moonlight followed its young protagonist, Chiron, through several stages of adolescence, the hero of The Florida Project—a sassy six-year-old named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince)—exists entirely in the present and functions as our eyes and ears through virtually every frame of this story.  By shooting the movie from Moonee’s point of view, Baker understands—as Harper Lee understood in 1960—that sometimes the best way to understand the difficulties of adulthood is by filtering them through the innocence of a child.

FACES PLACES

The French guerrilla artist who calls himself JR first came to my attention in the fall of 2015, when he plastered a giant photograph of a man on a diving board along the glass windows of Boston’s John Hancock Tower, roughly 500 feet above Copley Square.  No explanation was given; none was required.  In the years before and since, JR has been travelling the world in search of interesting people and, as in Boston, taking super-sized portraits of them for display in the most public possible spaces.  In this documentary, JR is joined on this quixotic journey by one Agnès Varda, an endlessly inquisitive 89-year-old film director who, along with Jean-Luc Godard, represents the last living remnant of the French New Wave of the 1950s and 1960s.  If this pairing doesn’t constitute the most delightful buddy comedy road trip of 2017, I don’t know what does.

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Rose’s Turn

If you’d asked me a week ago to list my 25 favorite Americans whom I haven’t personally met, Charlie Rose may well have been among them.  I have watched Rose’s eponymous PBS program regularly for the better part of a decade now, plowing through hundreds (if not thousands) of interviews with people from every imaginable walk of life—political leaders, filmmakers, musicians, authors, historians, scientists, businesspeople, fellow journalists—you name ’em, Charlie’s interviewed ’em—and I cannot conceive of my life as an active global citizen without having done so for so long.

In a media ecosystem that tends to value screaming over substance and certainty over wisdom, Rose has truly been a godsend, drawing out more knowledge and insight about the world around us than any other TV newsman in the last 25 years.  The Spartan set of his studio—a large round oak table surrounded by darkness—embodied the simple, unpretentious mission of Rose’s program:  To bring an understanding of a given issue to a wide audience through conversation between serious-minded individuals.  With the possible exception of C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb, he did this better than anybody in the business.

If you want a shorthand for how Rose comported himself in his job—and why it proved so darned engaging day in and day out—just imagine if Larry King had bothered to study up on his nightly guests more than ten minutes before the show began—and had he truly cared what they had to say once it did.

Like King, Rose was adept at the rare—and increasingly rarefied—art of allowing his guests to talk for extended periods without interruption and to take the conversation in any direction they chose.  Unlike King, Rose was unfailingly curious and well-read about whatever the topic at hand happened to be—indeed, he seldom if ever booked a guest to whom he showed indifference or dislike—and was equally in his element with Bashar al-Assad as he was with Amy Schumer.

Never content merely to plug some actor’s new movie or boost a rising senator’s presidential prospects, Rose always made his best effort to cut right to the heart of a question, probing his subjects about what truly drives them to do what they do:  What is it, precisely, that gets them out of bed in the morning?  What does success mean to them?  What have they learned from failure?  What makes them happy?  What, in short, is their own personal meaning of life?

Naturally, not everyone who came to Rose’s table was up to the challenge of having their souls plumbed for deeper meaning.  However, a great majority of them were—including many who tend to be reticent in other settings—and those interviews are treasures to behold, and are available for viewing in their entirety at CharlieRose.com, where I will continue to spend time on a fairly regular basis.

However, over the last week, a big fat asterisk has affixed itself to all that I have just written, following a devastating report in the Washington Post about Rose’s secret history of sexually abusing and intimidating at least eight different women in his employ—behavior that ranged from traipsing around hotel rooms in an open bathrobe to forcibly kissing and touching would-be romantic partners to angrily firing those who rejected his advances, potentially ending their careers as a result.

Indeed, from details in the Post story alone, Charlie Rose would seem to be the Harvey Weinstein of broadcast television—a perfect scumbag whose libido and sense of male entitlement are almost farcical in their reckless audacity.

Reading these women’s accounts in full—as I did when the story broke last Monday—felt very nearly like a personal betrayal.  Despite having never met the man, nor frankly known much about him beyond what he presented when the cameras were rolling, Rose had long struck me as a fundamentally decent and respectable elder statesman of news media—a true gentleman whom I could (and did) trust to present the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, about how the world really works—up to and including the problem of sexual assault in and out of the workplace.

That he, of all people, would turn out to be a Dirty Old Man who treats women as pure flesh and is so clueless about human nature that he had no idea of his predatory tendencies until he read about them in the Washington Post—well, it’s enough to make you wonder whether the Founding Fathers had it exactly backwards in granting full citizenship exclusively to landowning white men.  Whether, indeed, it might not be such a crazy idea to bar all men from positions of power until (to coin a phrase) we know what’s going on.

In any case, speaking as someone who can occasionally differentiate right from wrong, I understand why Charlie Rose will not—and should not—be allowed on television for a very long time, if ever, and that my continued viewing of old episodes of his show is, for the most part, indefensible.  For all the enjoyment his interviews have given me over the years—right up until last week, in fact—I accept that his fall from grace is a small price to pay for a society in which women’s job security and physical safety are not determined by the carnal urges of the men who sign their paychecks.

All the same, I cannot help but echo the reaction of Gayle King, Rose’s CBS This Morning co-host (along with Norah O’Donnell), who expressed an equal measure of disgust and sadness at the revelation that our boy Charlie is not the man we thought he was—that his periodic and rather creepy on-air flirting with female guests was a massive red flag that no one in authority was willing to see or do anything about.  As King explained to multiple outlets in the days after Rose was banished from CBS and PBS for good, one can be disgusted by behavior that is reprehensible and destructive while retaining a degree of affection for a person one has come to know and love and who, in his better moments, was undeniably charming and respectful to men and women alike.

The truth is that it is extraordinarily difficult to have your entire perception of another person negated in an instant and be able to adjust your loyalties accordingly.  As liberals are continually learning about Trump supporters—and as conservatives learned about many Obama voters before that—once you convince yourself of the inherent goodness of a given individual, it takes an awful lot of bad behavior on his or her part to alter your basic conclusion as to what kind of a person he or she truly is.  Once your initial opinion is established, confirmation bias kicks in and protects you from inconvenient information that might lead you to unattractive truths.

One solution to this conundrum is to be a lot more skeptical about your own assumptions, mindful of Mark Twain’s famous observation, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble:  It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Over the past year, there have been a great many things I knew for sure that were proved false by human events, not the least of which was the notion that a man who systematically—and openly—treats women horribly could never be elected president of the United States.  You’d think that fact alone would’ve steeled me against being surprised by anything ever again, and perhaps the truth about Charlie Rose will snap me out of my naïveté once and for all, just as the revelations about other celebrities have snapped other people out of theirs.

I just wish I could be more confident that I won’t be proved wrong about that, too.

Sex Crimes and Misdemeanors

It’s Thanksgiving week, folks.  For me, that means several things will most definitely happen, as they always do:  I will eat half my body weight in pie.  I will listen to “Alice’s Restaurant” on the radio.  I will go to the TD Garden for a Celtics game (16 in a row, baby!).  And at some point, I will re-watch Hannah and Her Sisters.

In years past, none of those things was the least bit problematic.  (Particularly the pie.)  This year, however, I am faced with a moral dilemma that has hit the country like a tidal wave over the last couple months:  If a movie is made by someone who has committed a mortal sin, am I duty-bound not to watch it ever again?

Hannah and Her Sisters, released in 1986, has ranked at or near the top of my favorite films list from the moment I first saw it in the early 2000s.  A “Thanksgiving movie” of sorts—the holiday is observed at three different junctures in the story—I never miss it during the latter days of November, much like It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve or Jaws on the Fourth of July.

The trouble is, Hannah was directed by (and co-stars) one Woody Allen, the beloved New York and Hollywood institution who, in 1992, allegedly sexually assaulted his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, when she was all of seven years old—a crime for which he has never been punished, either legally or financially.  Despite years of wide public knowledge of his possible—if not probable—predatory behavior toward prepubescent girls, he continues to churn out a film a year—invariably starring A-list actors—most of which turn a healthy profit and occasionally snag a stray Oscar or two.

Prior to the Age of Weinstein, Allen was able to get away with this through benefit of the doubt:  He would deny all accusations of impropriety and it would become his word against Dylan’s.

Then, in 2014, Dylan dispatched an open letter to the New York Times detailing the horrifying—and apparently ongoing—physical and mental trauma she has suffered from the incident in question, and the tide of public opinion began to turn—sort of.  (Allen’s response, also published in the Times, was a master class in condescending bitterness, clarifying nothing except how much he loathes Mia Farrow, his former partner and Dylan’s mother.)

Smash-cut to today—with one predator after another falling by the wayside, from Harvey to Cosby to Spacey to Louie—and it seems only a matter of time before Woody is evicted from polite society once and for all, and I would say good riddance.  Better 25 years late than never.

And yet the movies remain, and with them the question that will continue to plague us until the end of time:  As a consumer, is it possible to separate the art from the artist in one’s daily life?

For me, the answer has always been yes, and the #MeToo movement has done nothing to alter my basic view on this subject, which is that compartmentalization—i.e., the willful disregarding of certain facts at certain moments—is an essential component of one’s appreciation of the arts.

We might agree the world would be a better place if millions of men were not disgusting, power-hungry pigs who systematically treated women like their own personal playthings.  However, it is equally true that great ugliness can occasionally yield great beauty, and it does society no favors to cast out every film, TV show, album, painting and idea that was borne from a morally repugnant source.  Knowing what we know about the Founding Fathers, I would offer America itself as Exhibit A:  Are you prepared to renounce “all men are created equal” just because the man who wrote those words didn’t seem to believe them himself?

Of course you’re not, because great works transcend the context from which they arose and can be considered and appreciated anew with each passing generation.  We can condemn the man without condemning the work, because in the long run, we will forget the man altogether while the work will endure indefinitely.  That’s what art is all about.

As it happens, Hannah and Her Sisters is a perfect illustration of how minimally a film director’s faults extend to the final product—particularly when the former happens to be a prodigy and the latter happens to be a masterpiece.

The great irony of Woody Allen (assuming the assault allegations are true) is how generous his films are toward women—how he so frequently casts first-rate actresses in strong leading roles and draws out some of the finest performances of their careers.  It’s no wonder Hollywood starlets keep knocking at his office door:  Allen’s films have produced more Academy Awards for acting (seven) than those of any other living director, and all but one of those Oscars were won by women.

In short:  If Woody Allen the man believes in treating women like crude sex objects, Woody Allen the writer-director has not received that memo.  Apparently he can compartmentalize even more profoundly than his audience.

For that consideration alone, Hannah and Her Sisters deserves to retain its place high up on the Mount Olympus of cinema.  Beyond being an absorbing, warm, complex, funny, nuanced, ironic and economical tale of New York sophisticates living at the intersection of ambition, lust and existential dread, Hannah is also the rare male-directed film that repeatedly passes the Bechdel test—the feminist rule of thumb that asks, “Does this movie contain at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man?”

Boy, does it ever.  Indeed, the people in this movie talk to each other about pretty much everything sooner or later—love, sex, death, God, suicide, Bach, Caravaggio, E.E. Cummings, The Marx Brothers, architecture, opera, quail eggs, infidelity, artificial insemination and what Jesus might think about pro wrestling if he came back tomorrow.  (The film’s answer to that question is among Allen’s gut-splitting-est punch lines.)

What is finally so remarkable about Hannah and Her Sisters—alongside Allen’s other top-tier achievements like Crimes and Misdemeanors, Annie Hall and the notorious Manhattan—is how deeply it understands human desire and why we behave the way we do.  Why, for instance, a happily-married accountant would betray his wife by fiddling around with her emotionally vulnerable sister.  Or why a frustrated actress would subject herself to one rejection after another before deciding to try her hand at screenwriting.  Or why a successful TV producer would quit his job to go search for the meaning of life.  Or why a reclusive painter would refuse to sell his work to a man who will pay top dollar for it.

Of course, the answers to these mysteries can take years in therapy to sort out—which, in Allen’s own case, they famously have—but one imagines it has at least something to do with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—another timeless, irreplaceable concept first articulated by America’s most hypocritical founding father.

As a two-hour treatment of this material, Hannah and Her Sisters is on par with Ingmar Bergman in its seriousness of purpose and depth of thought, while somehow incorporating the same riotous, neurotic humor that has characterized virtually every film Allen has made since he began in the late-1960s.  It is a nearly perfect movie that enriches my mind and soul every time it plays—particularly on or around Thanksgiving—and I don’t require Woody Allen himself to uphold high (or, indeed, any) ethical standards for himself in order to enjoy the artistic and intellectual gifts he has bestowed upon the world—past, present and future.

When it comes to cinema, the heart wants what it wants.

The Moore You Know

What America giveth, America can also taketh away.

If the women (and sane men) of this country have been feeling pretty good lately about the swift and sudden accountability that has met certain prominent men accused of inappropriate—and, in many cases, felonious—sexual conduct over the years, that hopefulness is being severely tempered down south, where the good people of Alabama are about to send a pedophile to the U.S. Senate.

The pedophile in question is one Roy Moore, a former judge and religious fanatic who has twice been yanked from his courtroom perch after refusing to enforce laws he found personally inconvenient, and who has been known to publicly suggest (among other things) that 9/11 was divine retribution for America’s sins and that gay sex is “a crime against nature, an inherent evil, and an act so heinous that it defies one’s ability to describe it”—the latter suggesting more about the man’s internet viewing habits than he perhaps intended.

This being Alabama—the most religious state in the union, according to Pew—Moore’s strutting Christian authoritarianism had already made him the odds-on favorite in his state’s special Senate election on December 12.  However, now that Moore has been accused of sexual harassment and/or assault by no less than six women—most of whom were underage at the time—his victory against Democrat Doug Jones seems all but guaranteed.  Indeed, if the latest polling is any indication, Moore’s in-state popularity has only grown as the claims of sexual misconduct have piled up.

In an earlier era—say, 13 months ago—such a scenario would’ve seemed unthinkable in America—not to mention dangerous, appalling, depressing and grotesque.

Here in the penultimate month of 2017, the prospect of a known serial predator being elected to the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body is still dangerous, appalling, depressing and grotesque—but it is also just about the most thinkable thing in American politics.  Roy Moore will, in fact, be the next senator from Alabama, he will not be expelled by his 99 chamber mates when he arrives (contrary to rumor), and he will serve there at least until his first term expires in January 2021.

How do I know this?  Because I lived through all 366 miserable days of 2016—including the one involving the sentence, “Grab ’em by the pussy”—and I know history repeating itself when I see it.  If Donald Trump was the tragedy, Roy Moore is the farce.

One need not be a political scientist to notice the cascade of similarities between last year’s rise of Trump and this year’s rise of Moore:  Both entered their campaigns as objects of national ridicule and disgrace.  Both are known for irresponsible, inflammatory comments on divisive cultural issues and a general contempt for those with whom they disagree.  Both are profoundly immature and obsessed with maintaining their oh-so-fragile sense of alpha superiority.  Both have been able to parlay that über-masculinity into a Stalin-esque personality cult among their most loyal fans.  Both have become so convinced of their infallibility that they never, under any circumstances, admit any fault or assume any personal responsibility.

Finally—and, at the moment, most importantly—both Trump and Moore have been presented with credible evidence of having behaved criminally toward multiple women (at least 12, in Trump’s case), both have faced calls within their own party to drop out of their respective races (Trump after the Access Hollywood incident) and, in denying all accusations, both have flatly and defiantly pledged to fight on to the end, claiming they themselves—not their accusers—are the real victims in this story.

All that remains to be seen is whether lightning can strike twice—whether, for the second year in a row, an obviously and flamboyantly unqualified political candidate can stonewall his way to victory in the face of all common sense, potential criminal charges, and every law of political gravity.

Let’s not kid ourselves, folks:  If America can make a pussy-grabber president, Alabama can make a pedophile senator.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

I came out of the closet far later in life than I should have, and when I finally decided to go through with it, it was largely out of fear of becoming Jim McGreevey.

McGreevey, you may or may not recall, was the openly straight governor of New Jersey—complete with a wife and two kids—who was forced to resign in 2004 following a sexual harassment claim from a male underling.

Finding himself boxed in by events of his own making, McGreevey opted to kill two birds with one stone by stepping down and coming out at the exact same moment.  “My truth is that I am a gay American,” said McGreevey at the press conference that would end his career, adding, “I engaged in an adult consensual affair with another man, which violates my bonds of matrimony.  It was wrong.  It was foolish.  It was inexcusable.”

It took McGreevey 47 years and two marriages to work up the nerve to reveal his true self to the world, and were it not for the sordid circumstances that more-or-less forced his hand, he may well have gone to his grave without owning up to who he really is, denying himself the chance to pursue a happiness that every straight American takes for granted.

What a sad little life that would’ve been—and what a rotten way to free himself from it once and for all.

To a then-closet case like me, McGreevey’s misadventures were a major wake-up call as to the miseries that come from living a lie for decades on end, be they sham marriages or professional ruin.  While I had no immediate plans to run for statewide office, I determined then and there that my own coming out would occur entirely on my own terms and long before I entered middle age and made a series of irreparable, self-defeating life choices.

In the end, I succeeded on both fronts, and though I hadn’t thought of McGreevey for quite some time, recent events have caused me to consider his case anew—and also to reflect how McGreevey is no longer the gold standard for how not to announce your homosexuality in public.

The new champion in that department is Kevin Spacey, the beloved Oscar-winning star of stage and screen, who confirmed his long-rumored queerness in late October after being accused of sexually assaulting the actor Anthony Rapp at a house party when Rapp was 14 years old.  In a widely-panned “apology,” Spacey claimed no recollection of the incident in question, proffering that he must’ve been six sheets to the wind and (by implication) behaving totally out of character.

In the fullness of time—i.e., within a couple days—it became clear that Spacey’s plea of ignorance was a big bucket of baloney:  He had, in fact, engaged in decades of predatory sexual behavior toward vulnerable teenage boys, several of whom have since come forward with their stories of abuse—all backed up by assurances that, within the Hollywood bubble, Spacey’s secret life of pederasty was no secret at all.

Initially, Spacey attempted to spin this horrific saga of sexual menace into an inspiring Big Reveal about his complicated sexual identity—and, in so doing, resurrecting the toxic age-old assumption that every gay man is a pedophile at heart—and major news organizations went along with it until the collective wrath of Twitter forced them to see the forest beyond the trees.

And yet, to my mind, Spacey’s life is a cautionary tale about the consequences of living duplicitously, which in certain ways is a uniquely gay problem.  While very few gay men share Spacey’s predilection for underage boys—let alone the pathology and chutzpah to act upon it—it stands to reason that anyone who chooses to conceal his true sexual desires for an extended period will inevitably be prone to unsavory (if not outright immoral) expressions of those desires at some point down the road.

Hence the imperative for every gay person to come out as soon as humanly possible.

Just as marriage can serve as a stabilizing force in any halfway-meaningful relationship, so does the act of coming out enable one to behave in a healthier, more mature fashion in virtually every aspect of life—not least in the physical realm.  This is precisely why marriage has so long been regarded as the brass ring in the LGBT rights movement:  By legitimizing same-sex unions, society encourages openness between consenting adults and the broader public, thereby reducing the prevalence of the sort of surreptitious—and morally fraught—sexual encounters that anti-gay crusaders are supposedly so concerned about in the first place.

The implication here—totally unprovable, of course—is that had Kevin Spacey summoned the courage to embrace his gay identity early in his career—and had Hollywood fostered an environment where such a thing were feasible for a talented and ambitious actor—he might not have felt the need to slink around at parties and in bars in search of fresh meat.

Then again, maybe not.  Perhaps Spacey is simply a dirty old man who enjoys feeling up clean young men, and no amount of social acceptance of LGBT folk would’ve made a dime’s worth of difference in how he behaved when the movie cameras were turned off.  You certainly can’t blame the booze:  I’ve been drunk as much as anyone in my time—both in and out of the closet—and never once found my hands creeping into places they shouldn’t be (except maybe the cookie jar).

All the same, the fall of Kevin Spacey—like the fall of Jim McGreevey—is a critical reality check for anyone who thinks he can maintain some grand fiction about his sexuality from one end of his life to the other and somehow not cause others (or himself) any pain along the way.

In fact, you can’t, and you’d best not even try.  There is no happiness in the closet, and to be gay is to come out—maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.

Laughing Into the Abyss

I spent the balance of October 2016 burning through all five seasons of Breaking Bad, so when the election returns rolled in on the night of November 8—with Donald Trump unexpectedly winning one critical swing state after another—the image that kept flashing across my mind was of Walter White in the Season 4 episode “Crawl Space”:  Huddled beneath the floorboards of his house, with the feds closing in on his drug empire and his wife having burned through all their cash, Walter screams out in agony, his body writhing and twitching with helpless abandon at the realization that his entire life has been a house of cards.  And then, without warning, his cries suddenly turn to laughter—cackling, maniacal laughter—as it dawns on him, with complete and terrifying clarity, that he is solely to blame for every misfortune that has befallen him, and that he is now, at long last, getting exactly what he deserves.

Cognitively-speaking, that’s roughly where I was by 11 o’clock on Election Night 2016:  Disgusted and horrified that my beloved country had chosen a thuggish, hormonal con man to be its chief executive and custodian of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal—but also perversely amused by the whole thing.  As it became plain that the most supposedly-unthinkable event in human history had come to pass—a result so shocking and senseless that no one on TV or online seemed to possess the vocabulary to explain it—I couldn’t help but suspect that, in some dark, elemental way, Trump’s victory was a signal that America’s chickens were finally coming home to roost.

They say sometimes you have to laugh because otherwise you’d cry, but every now and again it becomes necessary to do both simultaneously.  One year ago today, I was doing exactly that.  In some ways, I’ve never really stopped.

Indeed, among the major lessons I learned from the events of last fall was how deeply comedy and tragedy can become intertwined in the course of human events.  We’re all familiar with the axiom, “Comedy is tragedy plus time,” but the truth is that some tragedies are funny right off the bat, and the rise of Trump was most definitely one of them.

Recall, if you will, how the entire world spent the whole of 2016 (and the second half of 2015) in total agreement about exactly one fact:  Donald Trump could never—and would never—be elected president of the United States.  Virtually every pundit, historian and so-called “expert” on planet Earth repeated this same conclusion over and over and over again—as, for good measure, did every opinion poll and, obliquely, Donald Trump himself.  We spent months on end reflecting, with sadness, on the national moral decay that had allowed such an execrable man to be nominated by a major political party in the first place, but—with few exceptions—we remained convinced, to the bitter end, that the American political process—so brilliantly and meticulously conceived by our founders—would ultimately prevent such an unqualified and embarrassing candidate to rise to the highest office in the land.

It was classical hubris on everyone’s part, and when Trump won, it was like a punch line to a joke of which all of us were the butt.  In our stubborn certainty that we lived in a country too intelligent, decent and progressive to be seduced by a confessed sexual predator who had bankrupted four casinos, we never really accepted the possibility that we were wrong—that there was a cancer on the American character that had metastasized from one end of the continent to the other.

Maybe this is just my long-simmering exasperation with the pundit-industrial complex run amok, but there was something acutely pleasurable in seeing every professional prognosticator being made to look like a complete idiot—to find out that, when push came to shove, nobody knew a goddamned thing about the country they were living in and the electorate they had spent the past year-and-a-half profiling.  (In the final hours of the campaign, the Huffington Post gave Clinton a 98 percent chance of victory.  Meanwhile, Nate Silver, having set Clinton’s odds closer to 65 percent, was excoriated by liberals for “putting his thumb on the scale” for Trump.)

Equally troubling—and equally funny—is how after a full year of experiencing President (and, before that, President-elect) Trump on a 24/7 basis, so many on the left are still in denial about the ways in which the laws of political gravity do not apply to America’s 45th commander-in-chief.  How Trump can get away with things that no previous public servant could, and how sooner or later we’ll need to accommodate this fact rather than assuming it will magically go away.

To my mind, the most profound takeaway from last year’s election—and all that has transpired since—is the power of shamelessness as a form of political statecraft.  Beginning with Mitch McConnell’s unprecedented, disgraceful move to block President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee nearly a year before Obama’s term was up, America’s majority party—and Trump in particular—has abandoned any residual semblance of honor and chivalry it might’ve had left and replaced it with an ethos that says, “If it can be done, it shall be done.”

And to quote perhaps the most insightful tweet of the last 12 months—with apologies to Michelle Obama—“When they go low, they win.”

Where previous presidents would be embarrassed (and politically damaged) by suggesting, say, that not all Nazis are bad people or that pregnant war widows are liars, this president has so radically lowered the bar as to how a commander-in-chief ought to behave—and has so wholly owned that behavior as the main selling point of his “brand,” never apologizing, never admitting error—he has effectively neutralized every critique one could possibly level about both his character and his leadership style.  As far as the American public is concerned, he is who he is—take him or leave him.

On November 8, 2016, we took him, and there is every reason to assume we’ll take him again in 2020.

Why?  Because, as it turns out, Americans have a very twisted sense of humor, and so long as the Dow Jones is above sea level and the world hasn’t descended into nuclear war, we will accept just about anybody in the driver’s seat of Air Force One.

And when things inevitably turn south?  When the next financial bubble bursts or a hot war erupts in the Korean Peninsula?  When Trump’s sexual assault victims come out of the woodwork or Robert Mueller starts knocking on the Oval Office door?

Well, that’s when the real fun will begin.

Missing Mitt

Here’s a question for all you liberals out there:  Would you have voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 if you knew it would’ve prevented the rise of Donald Trump in 2016?

This scenario is hardly an idle fantasy.  Romney was, in fact, 2012’s Republican nominee for president, and, for a time, he had a real shot of defeating Barack Obama in his pursuit of a second term.  Indeed, Romney spent most of October of that year either leading or tied in the polls—a fact long forgotten by history—and had he succeeded in becoming America’s 45th commander-in-chief, it stands to reason that a certain New York real estate developer would not have run against him four years down the road.

Certainly, the emerging conventional wisdom about Donald Trump is that he jumped into the 2016 race—and is now governing—as a direct (and plainly racist) reaction to a black man having run the country for the last eight years.  In effect, Obama’s Obama-ness is the greatest—and often only—determining factor in how Trump makes big decisions.

In the absence of a two-term black president—and in the presence of Romney, arguably the whitest man who’s ever lived—Trump would’ve had no immediate, burning incentive to toss his red “MAGA” hat into the ring—particularly not as a primary challenger to a sitting Republican president, a feat of audacity that even Ronald Reagan couldn’t pull off in 1976.

In short:  No Obama second term, no Trump.  So I ask again:  Is that a trade you’d be willing to make?

Having ruminated on this for some days, I do not yet have a definitive answer to that question, and I wouldn’t trust any liberal who claims he or she does.  We might agree that Obama was exceptional and Trump is an abomination, but we have yet to fully assimilate how completely—and ironically—the latter is a product of the former:  How, by twice electing President Obama, we were unwittingly planting the seeds of a backlash whose damage will be the work of generations to clean up.

Will it have been worth it in the end?  Is President Trump a fair price to pay for President Obama?  When we look back on this era many decades from now, will we conclude that the benefits of Obama’s administration outweighed the horrors of Trump’s?

At this highly tentative juncture, the answer for many Americans (including this one) is unambiguously “yes.”  As a longtime member of the LGBT club, my life is certainly more promising now than it was four (and eight) years ago—as, I would wager, are the lives of most other social and ethnic minorities whose rights Obama steadfastly defended, along with pretty much anyone who enjoys such amenities as affordable healthcare and breathable air.  Even setting aside the profound historical significance of a black family occupying the White House, the Obama presidency was a truly unique and productive epoch in our history—a veritable golden age of progressive policy initiatives—that every liberal in America should be proud to have voted into existence twice.

Against Obama’s undeniable record of accomplishment—despite the near-comical degree of opposition every step of the way—I have found myself grappling with perhaps the most surprising political revelation of the last four years:

Mitt Romney was not that bad of a guy, and probably wouldn’t have made that bad of a president.

Maybe that sounds crazy, but think about it:  A reasonably successful former governor and businessman.  An intellectual sophisticate with an expansive vocabulary and two Harvard degrees.  A devoted husband and father without a whiff of personal scandal.  And perhaps most essential of all, given the times:  An even-tempered, rational empiricist who does not need a great struggle to see what is directly in front of his nose.

Say what you want about Romney—Lord knows I have—but as president he would not spend an entire week feuding with the wife of a fallen soldier.  He would not sully decades of friendship with key American allies by lambasting them at campaign rallies and on official Oval Office phone calls.  Nor, under any circumstances, would he put in a nice word for Nazis and Klansmen, nor conjure childish nicknames for every senator he doesn’t like and every journalist who asks him a probing question.

He would never do any of those things, because, at the end of the day, Mitt Romney is a well-adjusted adult who believes in liberal democratic norms and understands that the job of the president is to lead—and to lead by example.

To be clear:  I have not forgotten Romney’s many faults, and I still believe my vote for Obama in 2012 was the right one, given what we knew at the time.  I remember Romney’s appalling “faith speech” in 2007, in which he denounced secularism as antithetical to American values, when of course the exact opposite is the case.  I remember when he vowed to double the inmate population at Guantanamo Bay rather than shut the whole rotten place down.  And I certainly remember his knack for reversing virtually every major policy position he’d ever taken—almost always in the wrong direction—thereby feeding the assumption that his thirst for power overwhelmed any notion of honor or personal integrity.

And yet—having said all that—I’ve twice watched Greg Whiteley’s 2014 documentary Mitt, which follows Romney through both of his presidential campaigns, and I’ve twice been taken aback by the sheer whimsy, civility and introspectiveness of this most peculiar American political character.  (“I think I’m a flawed candidate,” he says at one point, surrounded by his entire family.)

What’s more, when it became evident, by late 2015, that Donald Trump posed a clear and present danger to the moral authority of the United States, Romney rose to the occasion like few Republicans have, even to this day.  His speech of March 3, 2016—in which he gingerly called Trump “a phony [and] a fraud” who was “playing the members of the American public for suckers”—remains the most direct, lucid and amusing indictment of the now-president by any major political figure over the last two years.  (Despite Trump’s claims to superior intelligence, Romney quipped, “he is very, very not smart.”)

None of which is to say that a Romney presidency would’ve been a pleasant one for liberals to endure, and of course had he been elected in 2012—thus erasing Trump from the equation—we wouldn’t understand or appreciate how much trouble we’d saved ourselves four years into the future and beyond, what with the space-time continuum operating as it does.

In truth, we are still a long way from comprehending the nature of the beast America uncaged last November 8.  Being so early into Trump’s tenure, we do not yet know precisely how bad things will get—how deep into the barrel this White House is prepared to sink—and how long it’ll take to bind up the nation’s wounds when this nightmare is finally over.

My ongoing hope—somewhat borne out by history—is that the Trump era will be short, aberrational and ultimately washed away by future presidents.  After all, if Trump believes—with some justification—that he can reverse one signature Obama decision after another through executive action, there is little reason to doubt Trump’s Democratic successors can’t—and won’t—reverse all or most of his, particularly once the congressional balance of power shifts back in their favor.

Without question, there will be a lot more pain before we ever reach that point, and it’s probable that some of the rot that Trump’s behavior has wrought upon America’s body politic will prove, like Watergate, to be a permanent blot on the national character and the presidency itself.

Broadly-speaking, there is no silver lining to Donald Trump being president except for the fact that one day he won’t be.  And while humans do not yet possess the ability to go back in time to prevent Category 5 calamities like him, my little Romney thought experiment should serve as a reminder that public servants are not all created equal and that the best way to avoid a terrible presidential candidate in the future is to do everything in one’s power to elect someone else.