Dancing With the Devil

Should we applaud the broken clock when it’s right two times a day?  What if that clock happens to be leader of the free world?

As a reasonably loyal and patriotic American, I would enjoy nothing more than to support the president—my president—in everything he says and does on behalf of the United States.  Believing, as I do, that America is ultimately one big family—albeit an absurdly diverse and dysfunctional one—I occasionally still cling to the fantasy that our leader, in addition to being the nation’s chief executive, can also serve as a sort of father figure:  A man of integrity, wisdom and resolve whom we can trust to do the right thing and respect even when he falls short.

In truth, of course, not every American president can be George Washington (including, arguably, George Washington).  More to the point, when it comes to public servants—particularly those with the nuclear football—skepticism should always take precedence over deference.  All humans are flawed—politicians triply so—and to invest total, uncritical loyalty in another person is a fool’s errand of the highest order.

And yet, every four-to-eight years, roughly half the country comes to Jesus on whomever the newly-elected commander-in-chief happens to be, defending his every action like it came directly from God.  Meanwhile, the other half—acting as a cosmic counterweight—grows to hate this man with the fire of a thousand suns, condemning his tiniest faults as the manifestation of pure evil, lamenting his very existence as a blight on the face of the free world.

The media calls this “polarization.”

While American politics has functioned in this sorry way since at least the days of Bill Clinton, it is beyond dispute that the electorate’s mutual antipathy has been ratcheted up to ludicrous speed with the rise of one Donald J. Trump.  To liberals like me who viewed Barack Obama as a leader who could do practically no wrong—a man of high intelligence, impeccable taste and the good sense not to invade foreign countries all willy-nilly—Trump comes across as someone who can do practically no right.

Indeed, the 45th president’s behavior has been so consistently appalling since the moment he took office, liberals (and many conservatives) have been able to march in lockstep in opposition to virtually every word that has spewed from his mouth and every executive order that has passed across his Oval Office desk.  From his anti-Muslim travel ban to his tacit endorsements of racism and police brutality, Trump appeared destined to fulfill Trevor Noah’s recent characterization of being “on the wrong side of everything in history”—an ugly caterpillar that will never, ever become a butterfly.

But then, on September 6, something funny happened:  Faced with a debt ceiling crisis and the prospect of a total government shutdown, Trump sat in a room with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi—the leading bogeyman and bogeywoman of the left—and cut a deal:  The government would stay open beyond September 30, without a requirement to fund a Mexican wall—this despite Trump’s earlier demand that he wouldn’t accept one without the other.

In other words, Trump did right when he could’ve easily done wrong.  He compromised when he could’ve stonewalled.  For perhaps the first time in his presidential life, he put the interests of the nation ahead of his own selfish need for dominance.

Sure:  Trump’s deal with “Chuck and Nancy” was a strictly short-term maneuver that, in all likelihood, was just a roundabout way of poking congressional Republicans in the collective eyeball for being such lousy collaborators since practically the first hour of his administration.

But so what?  The end result was the same:  The government could continue to function (I use that word loosely) while the president could rightfully take credit for reaching across the aisle and actually getting something done.

In effect, Trump’s budget deal was the silver lining that liberals long assumed didn’t exist:  Because he is beholden to no party or clique—because he has no moral center and cares about nothing but himself—Trump is prone, with some frequency, to act as an ideological free agent who is afraid neither of making friends of enemies nor enemies of friends.  While he used the GOP to win election and still formally identifies as a Republican, he is at heart a pure opportunist, prepared to work with anybody—on any side of any issue—so long as he comes out looking victorious in the end.

So it was, for instance, that just days after announcing the supposed end to the DACA program—the Obama-era law protecting children of illegal immigrants that, as it turns out, is far more popular than the president realized—Trump abruptly tweeted, “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military? Really!…..”

Elizabeth Warren couldn’t have said it better, and to hear those words from Donald Trump—Donald Trump!—is proof positive that our 45th president is someone whom Democrats can work with, after all.  Someone whom we, as a people, can occasionally be proud to have put in charge.

I know what you’re thinking:  I’ve lost my goddamned mind.  As he has proved in a thousand-and-one different ways, Donald Trump is a liar, a con man, a racist and a thug—not to mention a sociopath and malignant narcissist with zero capacity for basic human empathy.

All of that is true—and always will be true—but you know what else he is?  The president of the United States.  He is the most powerful human being on planet Earth, and the awesome reach of his power is not lessened one iota by the profound magnitude of his awfulness.

In their frothing, maniacal hatred of all that Trump represents, many liberals have forgotten—or rejected—the idea that you can negotiate with someone whom you detest, and they have accused people like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi—architects of the budget agreement—of selling their party down the river in the name of fleeting bipartisanship.

The fear, one assumes, is that cutting a deal with Trump is a slippery slope to “normalizing” him, and once Trump is accepted as a backroom politician like any other, the nation will have irretrievably lost its soul (and possibly also its healthcare).

The problem with this theory is that Trump is, in fact, a broken clock:  He is absolutely wrong at least 95 percent of the time, but that still leaves 5 percent in which he lives up to his billing as the guy who speaks truths that few other public officials ever have.  (The truth, for instance, that legislators are bought off by billionaires like Trump, or that globalization has had negative consequences for certain subsets of American workers.)

The conventional wisdom about Trump—largely true—is that his beliefs are shaped by the last person he speaks with—hence the pro-DACA tweet shortly after his meeting with Schumer and Pelosi—and there is real validity to the notion that his presidency remains a hunk of wet clay whose final form will be determined by whichever adviser—or whichever party—has the more nimble hands.

Don’t forget:  This is a man who has switched political parties at least five times in his adult life.  Are we so sure that he won’t do it again sometime in the next three years?  Shouldn’t the Democrats have a contingency plan in the event that the Donald decides the GOP is no longer his cup of tea?

In any case, for Team Never Trump—a group that only grows larger with time—I would recommend an old Lenin adage:  Keep your heart on fire and your brain on ice.  By all means, condemn President Trump as the wretched piece of orange excrement that he oh-so-obviously is.  However, do not allow your contempt for him to so warp your perspective that you can no longer recognize the moments (rare as they are) when he actually behaves well.

Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the bad.  If you do, things will only get worse from there.

Trump may not be your president, but he is the president, and you owe it to your country and yourself to push him in the right direction whenever the opportunity presents itself.  You might be surprised how good it’ll feel when you succeed.

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Stop Punching People in the Face

Leave it to America’s far left to make fighting Nazis seem unreasonable.

This past Saturday, my hometown of Boston, Mass., became a focal point in the racial and political unrest that has seized the nation since the deadly white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., the previous weekend.  In the City of Beans, a gang of similarly-minded individuals planned to hold a “free speech rally” on Boston Common—speech that presumably would include incitements to racial and anti-Semitic violence, à la Charlottesville.

In response, city residents mounted what could only be described as an overwhelming show of counter-force:  a phalanx of 40,000 sign-wielding liberals who marched two miles from Roxbury to the Common in a concerted effort to demonstrate just how undesirable racism has become in this increasingly welcoming New England town.

Of those 40,000 people, 33 were arrested for disorderly conduct such as throwing rocks and bottles at police and instigating scuffles with those they deemed to be their mortal enemies—i.e., Nazis, Klansmen and the like.

In such a contentious, emotionally-wrought environment, 33 arrests might seem like small potatoes—a negligible amount of hooliganism in an otherwise respectful and orderly exercise of free assembly in an uncertain time.

Indeed, it would be an impressively small figure, except for one thing:  There were virtually no white supremacists on Boston Common that day.

Yes:  Initially, several representatives of America’s leading neo-Nazi groups—including those who appeared in Charlottesville—were slotted to speak at the Common’s Parkman Bandstand on Saturday.  However, because the blowback to this event was so ferocious—on the part of both ordinary citizens and the city’s mayor and chief of police—nearly all of the most contemptible and poisonous of these genocidal thugs opted to get the hell out of town before the thing ever really got off the ground.

What remained of this “free speech rally,” then, was a disparate, minuscule and heavily cordoned-off collection of libertarian weirdos whose unifying purpose seemed to be nothing more concrete than to celebrate the right to gather in a public park and make an unholy spectacle of yourself.  Among the few who actually spoke (not that anyone could hear them) were an Indian-American entrepreneur running for U.S. Senate in 2018, along with the deaconess of a Rhode Island religious sect whose rituals include smoking cannabis through a giant ram’s horn.

There were no Confederate battle flags.  No Nazi salutes.  No tiki torches.  No “Jews will not replace us.”  No nothing.

In short—and to the world’s great relief—Boston was not Charlottesville.  Not by a long shot.  And yet, by their conduct, certain members of the heaving counter-protest seemed determined to believe that it was, and that the men and women squeezed into the Parkman Bandstand—some of whom carried rainbow flags and signs reading “Black Lives DO Matter”—were an existential threat to liberal democracy and deserving of the maximal abuse one can inflict in broad daylight while surrounded by Boston’s finest.

The result—as seen on TV—was that a handful of hapless white men in red caps—some of them undoubtedly scared out of their wits—were pushed, shoved, screamed at and put in such danger of serious bodily harm that they required a police escort back to their vehicles or some other private space.  Indeed, without all those cops standing nearby, there is little doubt the scene would’ve turned real ugly, real fast.

This will not stand, my friends.  This aggression will not stand.

If combating racism is to be the great mission of the Resistance under Donald Trump—and why on Earth shouldn’t it be?—we must follow the example of the 39,967 who did not cause trouble in Boston, while robustly condemning the 33 who couldn’t summon the willpower to act like normal members of society.

Don’t ever forget:  The whole point of opposing white supremacy is that violence, hatred and intimidation are intrinsically harmful to democracy and all human relations.  Accordingly, the anti-fascist left cannot become associated—even for a moment—with violence, hatred and intimidation.  If we want history to view us as the good guys in this fight, we need to earn that distinction by behaving better than our opponents.  We cannot allow ourselves to sink to their level.

In his insane press conference last Tuesday, Donald Trump attempted to draw a moral equivalence between white supremacists and those who resist them, suggesting that the “alt-left” can be just as intolerant and thuggish as the alt-right.  Well, guess what:  Every time a member of our team does something stupid—such as punching a Trump supporter in the face—we make Trump’s point for him.  And every time we tacitly (if not openly) cheer that stupidity on, we become complicit in fostering the type of culture that we claim to find un-American and repulsive.

Is that what we want?  To prove that Nazis are only slightly less respectable than we are?  With the future of Western civilization at stake, I think we ought to aim a bit higher than that.

Repeat after me:  Nothing good can ever come from violence.  Being officially opposed to fascism does not entitle you to employ fascistic tactics to achieve desired ends, and there is nothing more fascistic than threatening physical harm upon those with whom you disagree—up to and including those who ruddy well deserve it.

To that end, our challenge today is to not permit the cause of anti-fascism to be defined by the group that has made a portmanteau of that very term:  “Antifa.”  New to the American vernacular, but in fact derived from European agitators in the 1930s, Antifa—a loose confederation of quasi-anarchists, helpfully profiled in this month’s Atlantic—defines itself in explicitly confrontational and often violent terms, and seems interested not in winning the understanding of its enemies but in beating them into submission.  You know:  Just like Nazis.

This is not the way to win the moral high ground, folks.  And it sure ain’t the way to win elections.

Equally dangerous—and equally worth underlining—is the left’s abandonment of all subtlety and nuance in the name of effecting a more multicultural world.  If there is any lesson we should draw from the protests in Boston, it’s to resist the urge to accuse anyone we don’t like as a card-carrying racist or anti-Semite.  While it’s apparently true that every Nazi and Klansman in America is an enthusiastic Trump supporter, not every Trump supporter is a Nazi or Klansman—nor, indeed, is every conservative or libertarian a Trump supporter in any way, shape or form.

Every time we liberals aggressively assume otherwise—as practically everyone in Boston did, despite ample evidence to the contrary, both before and after the fact—we turn ourselves into the hysterical, intolerant caricatures that the alt-right suspects we’ve always been, making it that much more difficult to change hearts and minds or be taken seriously by those who are skeptical of our true motives.

As I watched the scene on Boston Common—crisply described by Matt Taibbi on Twitter as “basically thirty people or so surrounded by the whole city of Boston”—I understood why conservatives feel under siege by a culture that doesn’t seem to care what they think.  The way counter-protesters dismissed the very idea of a rally that welcomed unpopular opinions—the way Police Commissioner Bill Evans carelessly remarked, “Their message isn’t what we want to hear”—it’s no wonder the alt-right has come to label us all as “snowflakes” who cannot handle the open airing of competing views in the public square.

Having been on the winning side of virtually every battle in America’s ongoing culture war, it is not necessary for liberals to tar and feather every person on Earth who might possibly speak—or think—an unwelcome idea.  Witch hunts should be limited to when there are actual witches on site—as there were in Charlottesville last week, and as there is in the Oval Office right now—and when they occur, they should be conducted by the forces of reason, restraint and truth, and not by Antifa, which traffics in bullying, propaganda and sometimes even death.

There is nothing to be gained by playing as dirty—or even one-tenth as dirty—as the darkest forces that have ever bestrode the face of America.  Morally-speaking, standing toe-to-toe against literal Nazis is the easiest battle any of us will ever be required to wage, and we would do well always to remember the wise man who famously cautioned, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

This is our moment to prove that we leftists really are on the right side of history, and with modern-day Klansmen on the march and a racial arsonist in the White House, there is absolutely no margin for error.

This is not a drill, people.  We have to get this one right.

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?