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.

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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?

Against All Enemies

The election of Donald Trump was arguably the worst disaster to befall the United States since September 11, 2001.  But if you ask what will keep me up at night once Trump assumes power, the answer is:  Whatever disaster comes next.

I say “whatever,” but really, I mean terrorism.  If not a large-scale, years-in-the-making cataclysm like 9/11, then perhaps a series of multi-city, mass-casualty suicide bombings like we’ve seen throughout Europe the last several years:  Barbarous, politically-motivated strikes that, individually, are not destructive enough to bring America to its collective knees but, taken together, have the effect of radicalizing ordinary citizens into seeking extraordinary, extralegal measures to ensure such death and disruption doesn’t become (to use the buzzword of the moment) normalized.

You can see it coming from 100 miles away:  Trump conditions his supporters to view all Muslims with suspicion as potential ISIS recruits.  Then one day, their worst fears are realized when actual radical Islamists commit an actual act of terrorism on American soil.  As a consequence, those citizens who for years have been fed a steady diet of revulsion and contempt toward the entire Islamic faith will feel emboldened to act on those worst instincts.

At the street level, this will inevitably take the form of countless assaults and harassment against any and all perceived “foreigners” by brainless white thugs cloaking themselves in the mantle of “patriotism,” cheered on by fellow white thugs waving the flag of white supremacy.

We know this is what would happen following the next terrorist attack because it’s happening right now in the absence of it:  Every other day, we hear about some Muslim-American or other being targeted by deranged white idiots for the sole crime of reading from the wrong bible and praying to the wrong god.  Never mind that virtually every major act of violence in America since 9/11 has been committed by white Christians; never mind that you’re more likely to be killed by a piece of furniture than a terrorist attack; and never mind that, within the United States, organized Islamic jihad isn’t even remotely a thing.

Nope:  We are now firmly entrenched in a post-fact environment, and there’s no amount of data or common sense that will prevent several million of our dumbest countrymen from viewing several million of their fellow citizens as avowed enemies of our very way of life.

It’s an insane, racist, destructive way to think, and the incoming commander-in-chief has been enabling it every step of the way.

Without much doubt, a Trump administration will be lousy for women, lousy for African-Americans, lousy for gays, lousy for Hispanics and lousy for Jews.  But for my money, it is America’s Muslims who are the most vulnerable group of all, because their “otherness” is so completely (and irrationally) tethered to a gang of murderers 5,000 miles away over whose actions they have absolutely no control.

Like German Jews in the 1930s or the young women of Salem, Mass., in 1692, Muslims have become the designated scapegoats for most, if not all, social unrest in the 21st century, and it is entirely up to us—the non-Muslim majority—to ensure they don’t suffer a similar historical fate.

As with all other heretofore-unthinkable scenarios, we have little cause for complacency on this front.  Never forget:  During the campaign—in response to no specific threat—Trump suggested a blanket prohibition on all Muslims entering the United States “until we know what’s going on,” and also insinuated—albeit in his characteristically slippery, incoherent way—that the government should create some sort of “registry” to keep an eye on Muslims already living in the U.S.  You know, just in case.

The point isn’t whether he really meant it.  As anyone with half a brain ought to know by now, Trump doesn’t really mean anything.

The point—chilling and undeniable—is that, in Trump’s mind, absolutely nothing is out of bounds.  To him, there is no limit to what the president can do for the sake of “national security”:  The ends justify the means, even when the ends themselves are unclear.  Having never read a word of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Geneva Conventions or, for that matter, the Old and New Testaments, he believes himself immune to the institutional checks and basic ethical norms that every other democratically-elected official takes for granted and that serve as the societal glue that holds this crazy world together.

Fundamentally, our next president possesses the mind of a dictator, waking up every morning thinking, “If it can be done, why shouldn’t it be?”

Hence the profound unease we should all feel about how he might behave in an emergency—particularly given our country’s abysmal track record in this department.

Remember:  In response to World War II, Franklin Roosevelt systemically violated the Constitutional rights of 120,000 American citizens in the off-chance they were Japanese sleeper agents—and he is considered the greatest president of the 20th century.  Eight decades earlier, Abraham Lincoln reacted to the Civil War by unilaterally suspending habeas corpus—a highly unconstitutional move that was roundly condemned by the Supreme Court, whose judgment the president then promptly ignored.  And Lincoln was the greatest man in the history of everything.

You don’t think Trump’s advisers have studied up on those cases and are prepared to use them as a pretext for rounding up Muslims en masse in the aftermath of the next big national calamity?  More worrying still:  Are we at all confident that, in a 9/11-like situation, Republicans in Congress will summon the courage to defend America’s core principles and prevent Trump from assuming dictatorial powers from now until the end of time?

They won’t if they live in competitive districts and fear being “primaried” in the next election.  They won’t if they expect to be labeled unpatriotic and “soft on terror” if they dare suggest that not all Muslims pose a national security risk.  And they certainly won’t if there is a groundswell of support from America’s basket of deplorables to turn the world’s greatest democracy into a perpetual police state with the sole objective of making white people feel safe.

It’s a central—and oft-repeated—lesson of world history:  Republics cannot be destroyed except from within.  In 1787, our founders designed a system of government—subject to layer upon layer of checks and balances—that could withstand every imaginable challenge to its viability save one:  The failure of all three branches to uphold it.

On January 20, Donald Trump will raise his right hand and swear an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  If his public statements over the last 18 months are any indication, he will probably violate that oath midway through his inaugural address, at which point Congress will need to decide whether it truly values country over party, and whether the principles established in that very Constitution are still worth defending against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

Particularly when one of those enemies is sitting in the Oval Office.

The Audacity of Hope

If there is anything to keep me going over the next four years of America life, it’s the ironclad assurance that, in the end, Donald Trump is going to hell.

While I would hardly call myself theologically literate, even I understand Christianity enough to know that if hell really exists, a proud, avaricious, vengeful hedonist like Trump will be the first in line to burn for eternity.  Short of bringing peace to the Middle East or giving all Americans free healthcare, there’s nothing the 45th president could do in the next thousand days that would extirpate seven decades of unadulterated sin.

It’s a pleasant enough thought—something to calm my nerves every time I open the paper and see the latest atrocity President Voldemont has inflicted upon my beloved country.

The trouble, though, is that I am a Jewish atheist—a disposition that not only takes heaven and hell completely off the table, but also calls into question the whole assumption that we live in a moral universe.  Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” but if the cause of his trembling—slavery—took another eight-and-a-half decades to eradicate, what does that say about the efficacy of divine justice?

Of course, the beauty of faith is that it cannot be disproved—or, indeed, even argued with.  Unlike, say, physics or CIA reports, the truthfulness of religion is contingent solely on one’s capacity to believe in it:  If you think God exists, then he does.  If not, not.

Understandably, most nonbelievers (myself included) find this logic extremely annoying.  If your brain has been conditioned toward skepticism and the scientific method, you find yourself in concert with Carl Sagan’s formulation, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”  On the God question, the evidence isn’t merely flimsy—it’s effectively non-existent.

And yet—like buying a Powerball ticket or auditioning for The Voice—most humans use religion as a flickering, hopeful signal that their lives have meaning, and what kind of a monster would go out of his way to tell them they’re wasting their time?

Before the 2016 election, that monster might’ve been me.  But no more:  In light of an unruly five-year-old becoming the most powerful man on Earth, I find myself reassessing the value of blind faith more seriously than during any previous crisis in my life.

Case in point:  We have been informed—rather convincingly—that Trump’s rise marks the victory of a “post-truth” society, whereby objective facts and raw data are irrelevant and all viewpoints are based on what one feels in one’s gut—a rough approximation of “truthiness” as defined by Stephen Colbert back in the fall of 2005.  Trump, for his part, is on record as saying, “All I know is what’s on the internet,” which stands as a near-perfect encapsulation of just how reckless and frightening his style of leadership and decision-making is destined to be.

If we take a panoramic view of the president-elect’s behavior since November 9—to say nothing of the year-and-a-half before that—we have no choice but to conclude (yet again) that Trump poses an existential threat to America’s core institutions and to the economic stability of the entire world order.  Disdainful of the First Amendment, belligerent toward our allies, blasé about intelligence briefings and profoundly ignorant of both U.S. and world history, Trump is a category 5 catastrophe in the making who, short of impeachment proceedings, is never, ever going to change.

What is all just a fancy way of saying that, from an objective, rational standpoint, the next four years are going to suck on a daily—if not hourly—basis, and we have zero cause to hope for anything better.

Hence the overwhelming allure of religion, which says that hope springs eternal and that faith can be used as a bludgeon against a veritable avalanche of unattractive facts.

Faced with an impossible situation, a nonbeliever will throw up his or her hands and proclaim, “There’s nothing to be done here.”  But to a person of faith, the term “impossible situation” is a contradiction in terms:  So long as God exists—as He most assuredly does—nothing is truly impossible, since there is always the outside chance of a miracle.

To my thinking, that is the real meaning of President Obama’s famous phrase, “The audacity of hope.”  Hope, after all, is just another word for blind faith—i.e. believing in something for which there is little, if any, empirical evidence—and its audaciousness lies in its very improbability and ridiculousness.

Like certain other Christian tenets—love, forgiveness, turning the other cheek—hope is not necessarily in accord with human nature.  Left to our own devices, most of us are prone to ethical and intellectual laziness, which can naturally lead to such un-Christian sentiments as anger, pessimism and despair.  Indeed, there is very little in life more emotionally difficult than looking directly into the abyss and finding some reason—any reason—to soldier onward.

And yet, that’s exactly what we need to do on January 20, 2017, when Donald Trump will be sworn into office and thereby officially become that abyss.  We will need to summon all the energy at our disposal to conjure a fantasy world in which America survives four years of racism, incompetence and corruption without completely losing its soul.

In short, we must not lose hope.  Not because hope is a winning bet—it’s not—but rather because the alternative is simply too horrible to contemplate.

Because we owe it to ourselves to wish for a miracle every now and again.

The Beautiful Struggle

In a year of ugliness, hatred, division and dread, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight arrives as a bulwark of beauty, love, compassion and hope.  Following a presidential election in which the forces of deceit and bigotry prevailed—calling our whole national creed into question—here is a movie about a boy (and, in time, a man) who struggles against those very same forces to understand his own identity in a universe that seems determined to make him someone else.

Truly, there has been very little in 2016 to assure us there is any beauty left in the world.  At my family’s Thanksgiving dinner—an affair that was largely (and blessedly) politics-free—we agreed that, through the darkness of the next four years, a great deal of light is likely to come from artists—a community of eccentrics with the boldness and optimism to create outsize the box, allowing us to escape our narrow window of existence and be exposed to different points of view.

Great art doesn’t always make us feel better—often, by design, it makes us feel worse—but it does expand the parameters of what it means to be fully human.  Outside of religion and science, it is our only mechanism for achieving transcendence.

Moonlight is great art, which is a rarity even among great films.  In his New York Times review, A.O. Scott wrote, “From first shot to last, ‘Moonlight’ is about as beautiful a movie as you are ever likely to see.”  I’ve now seen it twice, and Scott was not exaggerating.  You could play Moonlight with the sound turned off and still be unable to look away.  Indeed, you could print and frame dozens of randomly-selected screenshots and wind up with the most galvanizing photography show in New York.  Setting aside plot and character, Jenkins’s movie is an aesthetic triumph—a marvel of visual virtuosity.

Yet, in the end, you can’t separate the film’s beauty from its subject matter any more than you can separate the beauty of “Imagine” from John Lennon’s fantasies of socialism and world peace.  To experience Moonlight—specifically, the travails of its young hero, Chiron—is to be elevated to a level of consciousness about other people’s lives that only movies can attain.  Roger Ebert famously described the cinema as “like a machine that generates empathy,” and it has been quite some time since a film has lived up to that lofty ambition as deeply and as movingly as this one.

How so?  First, by adhering to the No. 1 rule of storytelling:  “Show, don’t tell.”  Second, by showing us exactly what we need to see, and nothing more.  And third, by providing us a leading man whose existence is at once unfathomably complex and wholly, tragically comprehensible.

For point of reference, consider Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which followed its protagonist, Mason, from age 6 through the end of high school.  By the end of that journey, we felt more or less like we knew everything about Mason, even as we conceded that a great deal of the movie consisted of fairly mundane events—going to a ballgame, getting a haircut, etc.

The audacity of Boyhood was its very conceit:  It was filmed piece-by-piece over a period of 12 years, so that the actors aged in concert with their fictional counterparts.  Arguably the film’s greatest flaw—although many considered it a strength—was the relative ordinariness of Mason himself, a middle class heterosexual white man whose cumulative coming of age was more compelling than any particular moment along the way.  Mason wasn’t exactly the poster child of white privilege, but nor was he particularly deprived, as far as American childhoods go.

Not so with Chiron (pronounced “shy-RONE”), the centerpiece of Moonlight, who through a series of genetic accidents begins life as everything that Mason is not.  Born and raised in a depressed, heavily African-American section of Miami known as Liberty City, Chiron is a diminutive, moody, soft-spoken outcast with no siblings, no father and a mother largely dependent on the friendly neighborhood crack dealer.  To complicate things, that very same kingpin, Juan (Mahershala Ali), takes a liking to Chiron and, with his wife Teresa (Janelle Monáe), becomes his de facto guardian angel.  By the end of the movie’s first act, it falls to Juan to confront Chiron’s unexpectedly pointed question, “Am I a faggot?”

The answer is yes (in a manner of speaking), and the implications of this realization—namely, that he is young, black and gay in a cultural milieu that cannot abide all three at once—sows the seeds of doom for the remainder of Chiron’s adolescence.

I shan’t say anything further on the details of that painful sexual awakening, other than to note how—as with Boyhood, in its way—the details are everything.  How extreme tenderness in one moment leads, inexorably, to extreme cruelty in the next.  How one wrong word, look or impression—propelled by centuries of repression, prejudice and fear—can irreparably alter the course of a person’s life, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

However, sometimes there is.  If the first two-thirds of Moonlight are a slow-burning human tragedy about the price and meaning of black masculinity in 21st century America, the final act suggests that if you manage to survive the crucible of your teenage years, there’s an outside chance you can begin life anew with whatever scraps are left over.

This is not to say that Moonlight is principally a film about hope, or about the inherent moral rightness of the universe.  There is much more to a fulfilling life than simply not getting shot or overdosing on cocaine.  No one with an upbringing like Chiron’s would (or should) ever consider himself lucky—and certainly not grateful for whatever Valuable Life Lessons those hardships might’ve imparted.

Barry Jenkins, the director, is not about to let us off that easy:  Along with his co-creator, Tarell Alvin McCraney (Jenkins adapted the screenplay from McCraney’s original stage play), he understands that a hard life is undesirable on every level, and Moonlight is finally about the struggle that awaits every gay black man who dares to carry himself with honesty, dignity and pride—and, most of all, the awareness that mortal peril exists on both sides of the closet door.

It is to the credit of everyone involved that such an ugly ordeal has been made into one of the most achingly gorgeous movies of our time.  In this political moment—as we find ourselves staring into the abyss in search of the tiniest shred of humanity to get us through the next thousand-odd days of America life—Moonlight provides cinema’s first answer to how the darkness might be endured, and it’s the same answer W.H. Auden gave in 1939, on the eve of another global cataclysm:  “We must love one another or die.”

The People v. Donald J. Trump

I can tell you the exact moment on Election Night when I realized the world was about to explode.

It was when PBS (or whatever I was watching) flashed a series of exit polls across the screen, and it was revealed that 53 percent of white women had voted for Donald Trump.

Seeing that figure, and performing a bit of number-crunching in my head, it was all I could do to reach for the whiskey bottle and think, “This is gonna be one long f**king night.”

Of all the statistics about how America chose its 45th president on November 8, none was more painful or disappointing than that, in the end, women did not come together as a bloc to elect their country’s first female commander-in-chief.  We knew that men couldn’t be counted on to get this done, nor could we expect that white people, as a whole, would ever make any bold, progressive move if they could possibly avoid it.

But women voting for Trump under any circumstances, let alone against Hillary Clinton?  It boggled the mind:  Whatever you might think about Trump’s so-called policies, how could any self-respecting woman throw her lot in with a candidate who regards all women merely as sexual objects and who has bragged about committing sexual assault and been accused by a dozen women of doing exactly that?

But then I recalled the moment in FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson, in which Marcia Clark assumed that having a largely female jury would guarantee that O.J. Simpson would be found guilty of murder.  Clark’s thinking was that women jurors would instinctively sympathize with Nicole Brown as a battered wife and condemn Simpson as a brute who controlled, tortured and ultimately killed her.

It made sense in theory.  In practice?  Not so much.

As it turned out, the ten(!) women on the O.J. jury were more sympathetic toward Simpson—a beloved athlete, actor and all-around celebrity whose natural charisma and calculated charm proved as irresistible in court as in all other facets of his life.  In the end, the Simpson trial became a referendum on the Los Angeles Police Department and 400 years of institutional racism in America, and not—as Marcia Clark hoped—a narrow case of spousal abuse gone berserk.  If anything—and quite counter-intuitively—Clark’s own standing as a strong, independent woman only made matters worse.

The gender dynamics in the O.J. trial proved nearly as compelling as the racial dynamics, and the entire Simpson saga is instructive to us now in understanding the $64,000 question, “How could Donald Trump possibly be elected president of the United States?”

In truth, the answer is almost exactly the same as it was in the fall of 1995, when every white person in America asked, “How could O.J. Simpson possibly be found not guilty by a jury of his peers?”

In short:  Because the team responsible for preventing it fundamentally misread its audience.

In 1994-95, Clark and company thought their case was about male aggression when it was actually about the racism of the LAPD.  And now, in 2016, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats thought the presidential election was about the character of Donald Trump when it was actually about the “forgotten Americans” who’ve felt screwed over by their government and want radical change in Washington, D.C.

In both cases, the two sides weren’t just making separate arguments:  They were speaking entirely different languages.

In the Simpson trial, the prosecution argued that O.J. had to be guilty because the science said so:  A trail of blood containing his, Nicole’s and Ron Goldman’s DNA was found leading from Nicole’s house to O.J.’s house via O.J.’s white Ford Bronco.  That’s to say nothing of the pair of matching gloves and O.J.’s long, long history of violent behavior toward Nicole.

Like any confident prosecutor, Clark trusted that the 12-member panel could put two and two together; all she had to do was present the information that would enable them to do so.

Same thing with Hillary:  Beyond her wonkiness and stamina, her entire campaign boiled down to quoting Donald Trump’s most vulgar and outrageous statements and assuming the electorate would realize how obviously unfit he is to hold any public office, and then vote for Clinton by default.

If your brain worked the same way as Clark’s and Clinton’s, you viewed their cases as offers you couldn’t refuse.  Of course O.J. was guilty!  Of course Trump is a moral disgrace who doesn’t belong within 100 miles of the White House!  How could anyone possibly think otherwise?

Fairly easily, as it turned out.  Not because they disagreed with the evidence, per se, but rather because they rejected the premise that the evidence could only be interpreted one way.

Sure, the DNA showed that O.J. murdered Nicole and Ron.  But how do we know the DNA itself wasn’t tainted?  The LAPD had proved itself corrupt and bigoted in the past; why should we give it the benefit of the doubt now?

And sure, Trump has made racist and sexist comments on an almost hourly basis and has no experience in government.  But that’s exactly what we need:  A disruptive outsider who tells it like it is.

Of course, O.J. was guilty and Trump is stupendously unqualified for high office, and deep down, I suspect many people who claim otherwise secretly know the truth.

But what we cultural elitists didn’t appreciate was the overwhelming power of symbolism, and the notion put forth by New York Times columnist David Brooks, who mused that “Trump is the wrong answer to the right question.”

In the mid-1990s, with Rodney King still fresh in everyone’s minds, the question within Los Angeles’ black community was, “How can we stop law enforcement from brutalizing us with impunity?”  Although O.J. Simpson had spent his entire life running away from his African-American identity—associating with a mostly white crowd and marrying a white woman—his arrest and trial became an opportunity—maybe the only opportunity—for black America to strike back loudly and clearly by asserting its right to exist.  O.J. was hardly the ideal vessel through which to transmit this righteous anger, but that doesn’t mean the anger itself wasn’t real or justified.  It was both, and if it meant allowing a black man to get away with murder—after four centuries of white men getting away with murdering black men—then so be it.

Likewise, prior to last year, Donald Trump was nobody’s idea of a working class hero—or, indeed, as someone with even a shred of interest or compassion for anyone who isn’t exactly like him.  And yet, through a combination of Trump’s own cynicism and the genuine fear and panic among America’s blue-collar white folk, that’s exactly what he became.

As O.J. suddenly decided to embrace his blackness when it served his own selfish purposes, so did Trump embrace his “silent majority” when he realized it could enhance his brand and maybe even make him president.

The tragedy in all this—and the central lesson we can glean from the Simpson fiasco—is that few lives are ever made better through latching onto false idols.

The O.J. verdict undeniably provided catharsis for much of black America—demonstrating that it was possible for a black defendant to cheat justice the way white defendants have for centuries—but it certainly didn’t bring an end to police brutality or the glaring racial disparities at all levels of the American justice system.

And now that Trump is heir apparent to the most powerful job on Earth, there is little reason to think he will follow through on any of his promises to the economically dispossessed—a group of citizens who will presumably be hung out to dry just like every other sucker that Trump has ever used as a means to an end.

When push comes to shove, Trump does what is best for Trump.  Through his greed, vulgarity and unhinged narcissism, he is the human embodiment of everything that is wrong with America, and now that he has somehow risen to the highest office in the land—both despite and because of his shortcomings—his story has become intertwined with that of the country itself.

The inherent tension of such a consequential, outsize life was the driving force of Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, the eight-hour documentary from earlier this year that is not only the best movie of 2016 to date, but also a defining document of what it means to be an American today—for better and for worse.

Donald Trump is the latest chapter in that story, and every last one of us has a stake in how it all plays out.  We are about to learn just how much abuse the American way of life can sustain without collapsing under its own weight and, once again, we’ll be able to watch every riveting moment as it unfolds.  Live and in color.

Scumbag-in-Chief

The next president of the United States is a selfish, narcissistic, vindictive prick.  For good measure, he is also a racist, sexist, fascist con man, as well as a lying, cheating sexual predator and a shameless, manipulative, vulgar hedonist.

On the bright side, he also appears completely in over his head, not knowing anything about the country he is soon to lead or the position he is about to fill, and has so far surrounded himself with a rogue’s gallery of losers, crooks and slimeballs.

Many of us have spent the past week searching desperately for a silver lining to the rise of Donald Trump, but in the end it’s a bit like realizing you won’t need to pay your electric bill because your house just burned down.

There is no silver lining to this election—no scrap of good news hidden in the raging dumpster fire of madness that the American people ignited last Tuesday.  We have all boarded the crazy train to hell and there is no turning back.

As a white male—ostensibly the most pro-Trump demographic of all—I will forever defend my vote for Hillary Clinton as the easiest decision I’ve ever made in a voting booth, and I’m proud to have broken Massachusetts law by photographing my marked ballot for posterity, in case there’s ever any doubt as to which side of history I was on.

Now that the election is behind us (ah, what a beautiful phrase!), we have been told the Clinton campaign’s fatal flaw was to have effectively written off America’s white working class, either by ignoring them altogether or dismissing them as “a basket of deplorables.”  Trump, sensing this untapped reservoir of potential support, exploited the fear and desperation of those who despise the Washington establishment and the status quo, and it turned out there were enough of those people to reach 270 electoral votes.

Politically, Trump played his hand superbly, and we liberals certainly deserve blame for not taking him seriously enough to assume he might actually win.

However, a brilliantly-executed con is a con nonetheless, and I confess I am still struggling with the theory that all the blue-collar folk who pulled their levers for Trump are owed our empathy and respect, and that they were justified in voting the way they did.  (David Wong’s recent Cracked article, “How Half of America Lost Its F**king Mind,” offers the most persuasive argument for this that I’ve read so far.)

President or not, Trump is still the guy who casually suggested that his opponent be assassinated, and who encouraged physical violence against protesters at his campaign rallies.  He’s still the guy who fostered contempt toward the entire country of Mexico and the entire Muslim faith.  He’s still the guy whom at least 12 women have accused of sexual assault and who was caught on tape bragging about having sexually assaulted various women (what are the odds?!?).  And he’s still the guy who earned the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups and never quite figured out how to tell them, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

None of that should be either forgotten or forgiven, and Trump has no right to expect the nation will simply “move on” from the fact that he’s a wretched human being who will do and say literally anything to get what he wants.  He could undergo a complete personality transplant tomorrow and end up being the second coming of FDR, but he cannot unsay all the things he has said or undo all the hurt he has inflicted on those Americans who have been the victims of his hateful, dangerous rhetoric—in particular, the Muslims and Latinos who justifiably feel that a permanent target has been callously branded on their backs.

As for the 47 percent of the electorate who supported this unconscionable degenerate:  They may well have voted for Trump on the basis of economic desperation and/or white hot rage at everyone in Washington, D.C., but that does not absolve them of responsibility for casting their lot with a man who is a declared enemy of such fundamental American values as multiculturalism, pluralism, a free press and the right to peaceably assemble.

At best, Trump voters collectively decided that issues of character simply don’t matter anymore; at worst, they agreed with most or all of what Trump actually said.  Call me cold-hearted, but I don’t find anything sympathetic in either of those explanations, and you’ll excuse me for casting aspersions on people who define themselves based on which ethnic groups they don’t like.

Of all the false equivalency that occurred during this abysmal campaign, the most irritating to me was the suggestion that all hate is created equal:  That there is no substantive difference between hating someone because of who they are vs. hating someone because of what they think and do.

Of course there’s a difference.  The hatred that drives a white supremacist to beat and torture a random black person exists in an entirely separate moral universe from the hatred that that victim comes to feel for white supremacists everywhere.  The latter is a product of experience and intelligence, while the former is a product of sheer, irrational prejudice.

Sure:  In the end, all hatred is poisonous, and the only way humanity can survive is for love to flourish from one end of the globe to the other.

But the way you guarantee that our country never gets there—and instead grows ever more suspicious of itself—is by electing someone like Donald Trump, who goes out of his way to divide America by race, ethnicity and gender and thereby license the most paranoid and violent among us to act on those noxious views.

This is not going to end well, and it will be almost entirely Trump and company’s fault.  We can beat up on the Democrats all we want for their fecklessness and alienation from the entire American heartland (if such a thing still exists), but there is no excuse or justification for the terror and mayhem that only deep-seated bigotry can unleash—bigotry that, at the risk of generalizing, tends only to emanate from one end of the political spectrum.

As the leader of all of us, the president is supposed to be a high moral exemplar.  By contrast, in his 70-plus years on Earth, Donald Trump has proved himself to be a moral disgrace in every sense of the word, and has demonstrated neither the ability nor the interest in becoming a better person while in office.

We can hope that he will somehow rise to the challenge, transcend all his worst instincts and be a president for all the people—indeed, we have no other choice—but we have been given precious little on which to hang that hope.  In the meantime, we are left with our fears and suspicions that Trump will continue to be exactly what he’s always been, in which case we will spend the next four years rooting for the success of a man whom our conscience tells us to hold in contempt.

Fasten your seat belts.  Things are about to get weird.