Searching for Sister Souljah

Last weekend, a gang of racist and anti-Semitic terrorists descended upon Charlottesville, Virginia, murdering a 32-year-old woman and injuring 19 others in an unambiguous show of intimidation and blind hatred toward a wide swath of their fellow human beings.

In response to this clear-cut example of American white supremacy run amok, the president of the United States did what he does best:  Blame everyone but himself.  Provided a golden opportunity to appear presidential for the first time in his life, Donald Trump instead managed to denounce violence and bigotry in general but somehow forget to identify the groups responsible for the violence and bigotry perpetrated on Friday night.  The unrest in Charlottesville, Trump said on Saturday, was the fault of agitators “on many sides”—an argument he amplified on Tuesday, when he attempted to equate the “alt-right” with the heretofore non-existent “alt-left.”

As with most previous instances of Trump saying the exact opposite of what he should have said, there was no mystery as to why he avoided condemning neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates by name:  They are his most loyal and vociferous defenders.  Every one of them voted for him last November, and losing their support now would constitute an existential threat to his presidency in the election of 2020, if not sooner.  As ever, Trump’s only true instinct is self-preservation, and if a second civil war is the cost of winning his next campaign, so be it.

What Trump desperately needs—what America desperately needs—is a Sister Souljah moment.

As students of the 1990s will recall, Sister Souljah was an African-American musician and social critic who reacted to the 1992 Los Angeles race riots by remarking, “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?”  Asked to comment, then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton renounced any association Sister Souljah might’ve had with the Democratic Party, saying, “If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black,’ and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech.”

Clinton’s unequivocal disavowal of left-wing extremism—in the heat of a presidential campaign, no less—won plaudits as a mild profile in political courage, positioning him firmly in the center of the Democratic Party, while also drawing suspicion from many on the far left.  In the years since, the term “Sister Souljah moment” has become shorthand for a politician distancing himself from elements of his own ideological team, thereby risking his political fortune for the sake of moral rectitude.

To be sure, examples of such brave stands since 1992 have been few and far between.  Perhaps the most famous—and costly—condemnation came in the 2000 GOP primaries, where candidate John McCain bellowed to a crowd in Virginia, “Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right.”  While McCain’s bold (if equivocating) rebuke to the then-dominant “religious right” helped further cement his reputation as a straight-talking “maverick,” it did him no favors at the ballot box:  As it turned out, most Republican primary voters liked the religious right just fine, thank you very much.

Much more recent—and, arguably, much more admirable—was an interview with Bernie Sanders in February 2016, during which CNN’s Jake Tapper raised the issue of “Bernie bros”—i.e., Sanders enthusiasts whose pathological antipathy toward Hillary Clinton seemed rooted almost entirely in rank misogyny.  “Look, we don’t want that crap,” Sanders told Tapper.  “Anybody who is supporting me and is doing sexist things…we don’t want them.  I don’t want them.  That’s not what this campaign is about.”

The Tapper interview didn’t receive a huge amount of press at the time, but it was a signal test of character for the feisty senator from Vermont, and he passed with flying colors.  While there is nothing difficult about decrying sexism in all its ugly forms—or at least there shouldn’t be—Sanders went a step further by specifically disowning the people who are sexism’s leading practitioners—namely, his core voters—and, what’s more, by suggesting that if those idiots didn’t get their act together right quick, he would just as well not have their support at all.  He’d rather lose honorably than win at the hands of a bunch of cretins.

That moment is a mere 18 months old, yet today it feels unimaginably quaint—a relic from a long-bygone era in which chivalry was not a four-letter word and basic human decency was considered more valuable than gold.

Will America witness another Sister Souljah moment like that again?  Will we ever get it from the man currently in the Oval Office?

Indeed, it is very easy to imagine how such a disavowal would be arrived at, since Donald Trump has been offered one opening after another to give it the old college try.  Faced with the murderous, torch-wielding skinheads who comprise his natural constituency—and his electoral firewall—he would merely need to step up to a podium and proclaim, “Racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and all other forms of bigotry represent a cancer on the American way of life and will not be tolerated so long as I am president.  Furthermore, I cannot in good conscience accept the vote or endorsement of any individual who holds such poisonous views, for I could not live with myself knowing that I had gotten to where I am on a platform of race-baiting, violence, hatred and cruelty.”

Should Trump ever issue a statement to that effect—and mean it—it would signify a willingness not just to throw his basket of deplorables under the bus once and for all, but also to enlarge his base of support to include at least a sliver of the nearly two-thirds of Americans who do not currently approve of his job performance as commander-in-chief but could potentially change their minds in the future.  It would enable him, at long last, to become a president for all Americans—not just the ones in the SS boots and the white hoods.

Could Donald Trump ever rise to that occasion?  Isn’t it pretty to think so?

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?

Eye of the Beholder

Can a piece of art ever exist entirely on its own, or is it always tethered to the context of its creation?

For instance, is it possible to listen to the Ring Cycle without remembering that Richard Wagner was an anti-Semitic prick whose music inspired the rise of Hitler?

Can one watch Manhattan—the story of a 42-year-old man’s love affair with a 17-year-old girl—and not be distracted and/or repulsed by the personal life of its writer, director and star, Woody Allen?

As a society, we’ve had a version of this argument many times before, trying to figure out how to separate the art from the artist, while also debating whether such a thing is even desirable in the first place.  (The answer to both:  “It depends.”)

Lately, however, this perennial question has assumed a racial dimension, compelling us to re-litigate it anew—this time with considerably higher stakes.

Here’s what happened.  Over at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, the curators of the institution’s 78th biennial—an exhibition of hundreds of contemporary works by dozens of artists—chose to include Open Casket, a semi-abstract painting that depicts the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American boy who was tortured and lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white girl.  (The woman in question later admitted she made the whole thing up, but that’s another story.)

As a painting, Open Casket is arresting, with the oils so thickly layered that Till’s mangled face literally protrudes from the canvas, as if calling out to us from beyond the grave.  As a political statement, it fits comfortably into our uncomfortable era of police brutality and racial unease—a natural, even obvious, choice for any socially conscious art show in 2017.

There was just one little problem:  The creator of Open Casket is white.  Specifically, a Midwestern white woman living in Brooklyn named Dana Schutz.

Upon hearing that a Caucasian had dared to tackle Emmett Till as the subject for a painting, many patrons demanded the Whitney remove Open Casket from its walls, while condemning Schutz for attempting to profit off of black pain—a practice, they argued, that has defined—and defiled—white culture since before the founding of the republic, and should be discouraged at all costs.  The message, in effect, was that white people should stick to their own history and allow black people to deal with theirs.

In response to this brouhaha, the Whitney defended its inclusion of Schutz’s work without directly addressing the race question, while Schutz herself issued a statement that read, in part, “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America.  But I do know what it is like to be a mother.  Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son.  I thought about the possibility of painting it only after listening to interviews with her.  In her sorrow and rage she wanted her son’s death not just to be her pain but America’s pain.”

In other words:  Far from being exploitative or opportunistic, Open Casket is meant as an act of compassion and empathy toward black America from an artist who views Emmett Till’s death as a tragedy for all Americans—not just black ones.

Of course, that is merely Dana Schutz’s own interpretation of her work, and if history teaches us anything, it’s that the meaning of a given cultural artifact is never limited to what its creator might have intended at the time.  The artist Hannah Black, one of Schutz’s critics, is quite right in observing, “[I]f black people are telling her that the painting has caused unnecessary hurt, she […] must accept the truth of this.”

The real question, then, is whether offensiveness—inadvertent or not—is enough to justify removing a piece of art from public view, as Black and others have advocated in this case.

If, like me, you believe the First Amendment is more or less absolute—that all forms of honest expression are inherently useful in a free society—then the question answers itself.  Short of inciting a riot (and possibly not even then), no art museum should be compelled to censor itself so as not to hurt the feelings of its most sensitive patrons, however justified those feelings might be.  Au contraire:  If a museum isn’t offending somebody—thereby sparking a fruitful conversationit probably isn’t worth visiting in the first place.

Unfortunately, in the Age of Trump, the American left has decided the First Amendment is negotiable—that its guarantee of free speech can, and should, be suspended whenever the dignity of a vulnerable group is threatened.  That so-called “hate speech” is so inherently destructive—so wounding, so cruel—that it needn’t be protected by the Constitution at all.  As everyone knows, if there was one thing the Founding Fathers could not abide, it was controversy.

What is most disturbing about this liberal drift toward total political correctness is the creative slippery slope it has unleashed—and the abnegation of all nuance and moral perspective that goes with it—of which the Whitney kerfuffle is but the latest example.

See, it’s one thing if Open Casket had been painted by David Duke—that is, if it had been an openly racist provocation by a callous, genocidal lunatic.  But it wasn’t:  It was painted by a mildly-entitled white lady from Brooklyn who has a genuine concern for black suffering and wants more Americans to know what happened to Emmett Till.

And yet, in today’s liberal bubble factory, even that is considered too unseemly for public consumption and must be stamped out with all deliberate speed.  Here in 2017, the line of acceptable artistic practice has been moved so far downfield that an artist can only explore the meaning of life within his or her own racial, ethnic or socioeconomic group, because apparently it’s impossible and counterproductive to creatively empathize with anyone with a different background from yours.

By this standard, Kathryn Bigelow should not have directed The Hurt Locker, since, as a woman, she could not possibly appreciate the experience of being a male combat soldier in Iraq.  Nor, for that matter, should Ang Lee have tackled Brokeback Mountain, because what on Earth does a straight Taiwanese man like him know about surreptitious homosexual relationships in the remote hills of Wyoming?  Likewise, light-skinned David Simon evidently had no business creating Treme or The Wire, while Bob Dylan should’ve steered clear of Hattie Carroll and Rubin Carter as characters in two of his most politically-charged songs.

Undoubtedly there are some people who agree with all of the above, and would proscribe any non-minority from using minorities as raw material for his or her creative outlet (and vice versa).

However, if one insists on full-bore racial and ethnic purity when it comes to the arts, one must also reckon with its consequences—namely, the utter negation of most of the greatest art ever created by man (and woman).  As I hope those few recent examples illustrate, this whole theory that only the members of a particular group are qualified to tell the story of that group is a lie.  An attractive, romantic and sensible lie, to be sure—but a lie nonetheless.

The truth—for those with the nerve to face it—is that although America’s many “communities” are ultimately defined by the qualities that separate them from each other—certainly, no one would mistake the black experience for the Jewish experience, or the Chinese experience for the Puerto Rican experience—human nature itself remains remarkably consistent across all known cultural subgroups.  As such, even if an outsider to a particular sect cannot know what it is like to be of that group, the power of empathy is (or can be) strong enough to allow one to know—or at least estimate—how such a thing feels.

As a final example, consider Moonlight—the best movie of 2016, according to me and the Academy (in that order).  A coming-of-age saga told in three parts, Moonlight has been universally lauded as one of the great cinematic depictions of black life in America—and no wonder, since its director, Barry Jenkins, grew up in the same neighborhood as the film’s hero, Chiron, and is, himself, black.

Slightly less commented on—but no less noteworthy—is Moonlight’s masterful meditation on what it’s like to be gay—specifically, to be a gay, male teenager in an environment where heterosexuality and masculinity are one and the same, and where being different—i.e., soft-spoken, sensitive and unsure—can turn you into a marked man overnight, and the only way to save yourself is to pretend—for years on end—to be someone else.

Now, my own gay adolescence was nowhere near as traumatic as Chiron’s—it wasn’t traumatic at all, really—yet I found myself overwhelmed by the horrible verisimilitude of every detail of Chiron’s reckoning with his emerging self.  Here was a portrait of nascent homosexuality that felt more authentic than real life—something that cannot possibly be achieved in film unless the men on both sides of the camera have a deep and intimate understanding of the character they’re developing.

Well, guess what:  They didn’t.  For all the insights Moonlight possesses on this subject, neither Barry Jenkins, the director, nor a single one of the leading actors is gay.  While they may well have drawn from their own brushes with adversity to determine precisely who this young man is—while also receiving a major assist from the film’s (gay) screenwriter, Tarell Alvin McCraney—the finished product is essentially a bold leap of faith as to what the gay experience is actually like.

Jenkins and his actors had no reason—no right, according to some—to pull this off as flawlessly as they did, and yet they did.  How?  Could it be that the condition of being black in this country—of feeling perpetually ill at ease, guarded and slightly out of place in one’s cultural milieu—has a clear, if imprecise, parallel to the condition of being gay, such that to have a deep appreciation of one is to give you a pretty darned good idea of the other?  And, by extension, that to be one form of human being is to be empowered to understand—or attempt to understand—the point of view of another?  And that this just might be a good thing after all?

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.

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.