Amend This

One of the more surreal moments of my four years in college was the evening Phyllis Schlafly came to town.

Although Schlafly, who died on Monday, was correctly known as a conservative Republican firebrand, the audience at her speaking engagement that night wasn’t necessarily any less liberal than the university’s student population as a whole.  As someone whose own worldview was at least 80 percent different from hers, I attended the talk out of sheer morbid curiosity, aware of Schlafly’s considerable historical significance as a 1970s right-wing ideologue, and I suspect that a large portion of my fellow attendees were there for the same reason.

Her spiel (I quickly gathered) was essentially the same speech she’d been giving all across the country for the past 30-odd years:  A broadside against feminism, liberalism, homosexuality, abortion, the sexual revolution in general, and any notion that, in matters of love and marriage, men and women should be treated equally.  In her time, Schlafly was often referred to as an “anti-feminist,” and in person she certainly lived up (or down) to that moniker, asserting, among other things, “Feminism is incompatible with happiness.”

Among today’s progressives, of course, hysterical opinions like that are increasingly viewed as relics of an ancient, oppressive regime that has rightly (if slowly) ground itself into dust.  Maybe it was socially acceptable to rail against gender equality and sexual freedom in, say, 1973, but our society has since gotten over itself and embraced legal equality of the sexes as a veritable no-brainer and a core American value.

Or so we would like to think.

Sure, most of the country has moved on from the misogynistic paternalism of the 1950s, but there is still a robust minority (i.e., the Republican Party) that feels differently about the respective roles of men and women, and it remains a force to be reckoned with.

And one reason for that is Phyllis Schlafly.  If her values have ceased to be America’s values, the residual strength of anti-feminism—the very fact that men and women are not treated equally in 2016—is thanks to her leadership on behalf of that powerful, lousy idea.

Above all, Schlafly’s legacy rests on her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment throughout the 1970s.  First introduced in 1923—and on a regular basis thereafter—the ERA would have enshrined in the U.S. Constitution that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”  If that sounds fairly uncontroversial to you, Congress apparently agreed:  In 1971, the House approved the ERA by a score of 354-24, followed by an equally overwhelming vote in the Senate and the blessing of no less than President Nixon to boot.  By then, all it needed was ratification by three-quarters of individual state legislatures and gender equality would’ve become the law of the land.

So what happened?  Well, it never quite got there.  While a bucket load of states ratified the ERA almost instantaneously—and a handful more tagged along in subsequent months—advocates of the amendment never reached the 38-state threshold they needed and the amendment ultimately faded away.  Why?  In short, because Schlafly and company persuaded those few remaining states that total equality of the sexes wasn’t such a hot idea after all, partly by arguing (wait for it…) that a constitutional right to equal protection based on gender would be irreparably harmful to women.

The continuing story of the Equal Rights Amendment is a true American classic, and it’s part of an engaging exhibit at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., called, “Amending America.”  With the Archives being home to original prints of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, this temporary exhibit looks beyond both documents to examine all 27 constitutional amendments that have been ratified to date, plus a sampling of 11,000 proposed amendments that, like the ERA, didn’t make it across the finish line.

You read that right:  American citizens—individuals, organizations and sometimes entire states—have attempted to change the text of America’s most sacred legal document on 11,000 separate occasions over the last 229 years and have failed 99.8 percent of the time.  If you ever wonder why things in America never seem to change all that much, there’s your answer.

The truth is that our founders deliberately made it very, very difficult to alter our Constitution once it was signed, figuring that the supreme law of the land should only be tampered with under extraordinary circumstances and with near-unanimous support from one end of the continent to the other.  In this über-polarized era, it’s no wonder we’ve only done it once in the last 45 years.

In the National Archives exhibit, we are treated to a contextualization of the 27 amendments that succeeded, with various explanations as to why and how certain proposals passed muster with both Congress and the states while so many others didn’t.

The first thing to notice—as this show does—is that more than half of our Constitution’s amendments in some way concern the question of individual rights—the right to free expression, the right to privacy, the right to due process and trial by jury, etc.  Indeed, no fewer than four amendments deal with voting rights alone, removing restrictions based on race, sex, age and ability to pay a poll tax.

Equally noteworthy is that among the amendments that address individual freedoms, only one—the 18th, establishing Prohibition—had the effect of taking away freedoms instead of expanding them.  It can hardly be a coincidence that, a mere 14 years later, the 18th Amendment became the first and only to be unceremoniously axed, following the nation’s collective realization that Prohibition was a terrible idea.

Beyond guaranteeing rights, the object of most successful amendments has been to tweak or clarify the way the government functions—a process whose extreme importance is matched only by its extreme dullness.  For every amendment that has granted mass suffrage or prohibited cruel and unusual punishment, there have also been those that have moved Inauguration Day from March 4 to January 20 or outlined when Congress can (and cannot) give itself a raise.

What’s the common denominator?  Not much, other than a critical mass of concerned citizens looking at a particular national imperfection and thinking, “You know, we really oughta fix that.”

Hence the rather hilarious variety of failed proposals over the years.  Among my favorites spotlighted at the National Archives:

  • A suggestion in the 1930s that instead of banning alcohol, the U.S. simply ban drunkenness, instead.
  • A plea, 100 years earlier, that no one who has engaged in dueling be allowed to run for public office.
  • A more radical plan to abolish the presidency altogether and replace it with a three-person executive council.
  • A similar scheme to divide the vice presidency among three people, ranking them, respectively, as Veep No. 1, Veep No. 2 and Veep No. 3.
  • A proposal—just before the U.S. entered World War I—that every war be put to a popular vote, and that everyone who votes “yes” be automatically enlisted to fight it.

Certainly, not all of the 11,000 duds were that entertaining, creative or outright loony.  Nonetheless, no matter how reasonable and practicable the more serious ones have been, they have failed to win the support of two-thirds of both houses of Congress and/or three-quarters of state legislatures, begging the question of what sort of amendment could possibly succeed in 2016?

Personally, I’d love to see the Second Amendment canned as definitively as the 18th, but I know better than to hold my breath.  Like much of America, I’d appreciate chucking the Electoral College once and for all, granting either statehood or basic representation to Washington, D.C., and getting big money out of politics, but is the status quo on those issues really so dire that we could muster a sufficient groundswell to actually get the job done?

I suspect not, and that points to the unfortunate truth that national consensus on a major subject—no matter how obvious in retrospect—tends only to occur once in a blue moon.  Lest we forget the immortal wisdom—falsely attributed to Winston Churchill—that Americans can always be counted upon to do the right thing after exhausting all the alternatives.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln enlightened us about the backbreaking work required to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, and that was after four years of fighting a damn war over the issue.  For its part, the original Bill of Rights was less an organized coming-together of common interests than an elaborate bargaining chip crafted by James Madison to coax a handful of reticent states into ratifying the Constitution itself.

Indeed, in many ways, this entire country was haphazardly cobbled together in a dizzying confluence of happenstance, compromise and brilliant improvisation, leaving us, in the end, with a series of founding documents that practically beg to be given a second and third look.

And we have indeed done that from time to time, but always while fighting the urge to honor precedent and the founders themselves, as if the ghosts of Washington, Madison and Hamilton will descend from heaven and collectively smite us for going against their divine wishes.

We should tempt the fates more often, for our sake and theirs.  And finally ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment would be a damned good place to start.

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Grow Up

“It’s alright, you want to fight, you’ve got a hunger.  I was just like you when I was younger.  Head full of fantasies of dying like a martyr?  Dying is easy, young man.  Living is harder.”

So says George Washington to a feisty Alexander Hamilton early into Hamilton.  Oddly enough, after a week of figuring out what to make of the “Bernie or Bust” crowd hanging around the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, I think I’m gonna go with that.

To explain:  The “Bernie or Bust” contingent is a group of left-wing voters who supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries with such fervor—and opposed Hillary Clinton with such white-hot disdain—that they refuse to vote for Clinton in the November election against Donald Trump, either by voting for a third party candidate like Jill Stein or Gary Johnson, or simply by not voting at all.

While it’s futile to make sweeping characterizations about this or any gaggle of unhappy Americans, the Bernie Bros do have one big thing in common:  They’re all acting like children.

Now, I don’t mean that in an entirely negative way.  After all, when children aren’t throwing tantrums, hurling food across the kitchen and generally making a mess of everything, they can be quite charming.

Indeed, the most singular and endearing component of childhood is innocence.  To be a kid in America is to bask in that one, glorious moment of bliss before reality sets in—before all the disappointments and compromises of daily life materialize for the first time, slowly but steadily crushing your spirit and forcing you to confront the fact that nothing is ever quite as wonderful as you imagine it to be.

The complexities of life will always induce grownups to secretly crave the simplicity of childhood.  It’s just that some people take that temptation a little too literally and never quite grow up at all.

Enter Bernie Sanders and his “political revolution,” which promised to temper America’s class divisions and force the crooks on Wall Street to play by the same rules as everyone else.

Morally, it was a presidential platform that was darn near impossible to resist—not least among liberals, who tend to value social justice and economic equality above all other considerations.

I certainly fell for it, and I’m glad I did.  In Sanders, I found a man whose vision for a more perfect America aligned almost perfectly with my own and whose character and integrity ranked him just a shade below Atticus Finch.

So I voted for him in the Massachusetts primary on March 1 and hoped that his trajectory as a candidate would mirror that of Barack Obama in 2008.

But then something funny happened:  It didn’t.  From one end of the primary calendar to the other, Sanders accumulated an impressive number of delegates, but Clinton accumulated even more.  In the end, Clinton’s lead proved commanding and ultimately insurmountable, leading reasonable people like me to accept the verdict of the electorate and move on with our lives.

However, this feeling was not mutual among all Sanders enthusiasts, as a small—but extremely loud—faction announced that their support for the Vermont senator was non-transferable in the fall campaign.

Their argument, in short, is that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are equally repulsive candidates—or nearly so—and that a vote for either would be a betrayal of everything that Sanders represents.  Specifically, they claim that Clinton is a corrupt establishment stooge who stole the nomination through an inherently unfair Democratic Party system, thereby removing any legitimacy to her claim as the Democratic nominee for president.

As anyone with two eyes and a brain can see, this interpretation of the Democratic primary process is not entirely without merit.  As the recently-leaked e-mails from the Democratic National Committee demonstrate, the party establishment really, really didn’t want Sanders to prevail and did everything it could to ensure that he didn’t.  Anyone who thinks Clinton and Sanders were competing on a level playing field is living in a fantasy world.

However, all fantasy worlds are not created equal, and Bernie loyalists—caught up in their furious indignation toward the DNC—are now living in one of their own:  A world of nihilism, wish-thinking, self-righteousness and pointless wrath.  Not content with the reality in which they actually live, they have opted to invent a new reality out of whole cloth.

In this alternate universe, there is no such thing as defeat.  If your candidate doesn’t lose fair and square, then the results are null and void and all subsequent events have no true significance.  Rather than acknowledging that one battle has ended and another, quite different battle has begun, you—like certain Japanese soldiers in 1945—continue to fight the first battle long after the enemy—and, indeed, your own goddamned candidate—has packed up and gone home.  Most crucially:  Because you didn’t get what you wanted in the end, you make it your mission to ensure that no one else gets what they want, either.  You’d rather the whole world burn than admit that life isn’t always fair.

It’s an attitude that is positively Trumpian in its disregard for nuance, its contempt for established rules and procedures, its abdication of all personal responsibility and—again—its utter childishness in the face of unattractive choices.

The essence of “Bernie or Bust” is that if America cannot have a saint like Bernie, it might as well have a lunatic like Trump.  Those who genuinely believe such a thing reveal themselves to know absolutely nothing about either candidate—and even less about Hillary Clinton—while those who don’t believe it—i.e. people who want Trump to win just so they can say “I told you so”—possess a level of narcissism and selfishness that would be embarrassing to anyone with even a modicum of self-awareness.

And yet, I cannot completely disown this unruly rabble of Sanders holdouts, since—like Washington in his first encounter with Hamilton—I know exactly how they feel and have felt that way myself in the past.

Following the kerfuffle in Florida in 2000, for instance, I basically shared the view of half of America that George W. Bush did not win that election fair and square and that the system was rigged against Al Gore.  In 2008, when Hillary Clinton claimed delegates from Florida and Michigan even after the results of those primaries had been invalidated, I similarly felt that an electoral injustice had occurred—one that, under slightly different circumstances, could easily have tipped the entire nomination in her favor.

And by the way, I can’t say I was wrong in thinking those things at the time, since the preponderance of the evidence suggested they were—and still are—objectively true.

However, amidst all my griping about how the system is corrupt, broken, sinister and frustrating, I eventually—and reluctantly—learned a critical lesson:  There is more to life than just being right.

Returning again to the Hamilton quote:  At this moment, you Bernie Bros could choose to martyr yourselves at the altar of democratic socialism, refusing to compromise a centimeter of its (and Sanders’s) ideals, dismissing anyone who falls short of those ideals as a sellout or a crook, and patting yourselves on the back for your moral superiority and ideological purity.

Or, conversely, you could recognize—as socialists generally do—that we live in a society in which all members must make a good faith effort to participate and contribute, lest we cede the entire enterprise to the worst elements of our culture.  We are all familiar with the axiom about what happens when good men do nothing (look it up, if you must); it’s as true now as it was then.

Here’s the deal:  Barring that much-longed-for meteor strike, either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton is going to be president on January 20.  This is true whether we want it to be true or not.  Accordingly, each of us has exactly two choices:  Either we can acknowledge the twin realities that are staring us directly in the face and pick the least-imperfect option—as responsible American citizens have done every four years since 1789—or we can retreat into our magical fantasy world where difficult choices aren’t necessary because we’ve already figured everything out and nobody disagrees with any of it.

Look, I’m sorry if this is the first time that America has broken your heart, but you’d better prepare yourself, because it just might happen again.

Dreaming is easy, young man.  Waking up is harder.

Don’t Let the People Decide

In the first decade of the 19th century, the Federalists became the first major American political party to keel over and die.  Led by such luminaries as Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, the party was done in—or rather, it did itself in—largely through internal squabbling and managerial incompetence.

At the heart of this disintegration, however, was the Federalists’ increasingly unpopular theory about government, which argued—in a nutshell—that America ought to be run by a select group of intellectual elites—a “natural aristocracy,” as it were—who were smarter, wiser and nobler than the public at large.  They viewed ordinary citizens as an unsophisticated “mob” prone to irrational, violent outbursts, whose opinions, therefore, should be neither sought nor heeded in matters of great national importance.

In short, the Federalist Party didn’t really believe in democracy—not directly, anyway—and felt the country would function just fine without it.

In light of this year’s party nominating contests, I think this would be the perfect time to consider whether they were right all along.

A boatload of Republicans certainly seems to think so.  Having seen GOP primary voters anoint Donald Trump as the party’s presidential nominee, a great many officials are still entertaining the possibility—however remote—that the party will stage a coup at the upcoming Cleveland convention  by somehow stripping Trump of the nomination and handing it to somebody—anybody!—else.

The immediate rationale for this would-be hostile takeover is that Trump could not possibly defeat Hillary Clinton in November, and since political parties have no greater duty than to win elections, this entitles the so-called Republican establishment to take matters into its own hands by overruling the will of the people and hoping all goes well.

The implication is clear:  Given the choice, it is better to win with a candidate whom primary voters did not choose than to lose with a candidate whom they did.  The democratic process may be all well and good, but when push comes to shove, all that really matters is victory.

It has been theorized that had the GOP copied the Democrats and introduced “superdelegates” into the mix, Trump may well have been overtaken by some other candidate.  In truth, based on Trump’s lead in “pledged” delegates at the time his rivals dropped out, it’s unlikely that a superdelegate revolt would’ve been enough to produce its desired effect.

But let’s grant the premise, anyway, and suppose that a) the GOP elite succeeds in removing Trump from the race, and b) the replacement nominee actually defeats Hillary Clinton in the fall.  Would we consider that fair?  Would it signify that the system “works”?  Would it reflect the sort of country we want to be or, rather, would it suggest that democracy, as we know it, is a mere figment of our imagination?

The answers might seem obvious to us—namely, that the above would be a clear perversion of the principles of representative government and a big, fat middle finger to Republican voters from a party leadership that views them with patronizing contempt.

By today’s standards, yeah, that’s about the size of it.  By definition, if the party decides, the country does not.

However, by dismissing such tactics as brazenly undemocratic—and, by implication, blatantly un-American—is to ignore almost the entirety of American history and the U.S. Constitution along with it.

Although political parties have existed for almost as long as the country itself, our founding documents conspicuously omit mention of presidential primaries—possibly because they didn’t exist until 1904.  For the first century of the American presidency, nominees were selected not by a state-by-state popular vote, but rather by—you guessed it!—a group of party elites, acting on nothing but their own superior wisdom and, presumably, a series of crooked backroom deals.  In this preliminary stage of presidential campaigns, the “will of the people” was not yet a thing.

What’s more, once primaries were formally introduced, it soon became clear that the results were not exactly binding:  However the rabble voted, delegates went right on choosing whomever their hearts desired—based, again, on which candidate might actually win the election.  Indeed, it was as recently as 1968 that the Democratic Party selected a nominee, Hubert Humphrey, who had not even competed in direct primaries, but who nonetheless secured enough delegates from non-voting states to jump the line past such candidates as Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, who had taken the trouble to actually campaign.

Was the 1968 Democratic nominating contest an electoral farce?  According to us in the present, yes, of course it was.  (Plenty of folks thought so then, too.)  However, when compared to all previous primaries up to that point, the shenanigans that produced Humphrey were essentially par for the course.  What mattered to the party was not how its voters felt at the time, but rather how the entire electorate might feel in the first week in November.

Until very, very recently, that is how American democracy functioned:  From the top down, with the public playing an exceedingly minor role in how our leaders are chosen.  Even today, the existence and idiosyncrasies of the Electoral College dictate that the country install the people’s choice for commander-in-chief only after all other options have been exhausted.

The rationale for this is rooted in an admirably straightforward assumption:  On the whole, the American people are a bunch of idiots and rubes whose ability to choose a leader is no more informed than a toddler’s ability to land a jetliner.

Now that the rise of Donald Trump has lent real credence to that theory, we are forced to confront whether unfettered democracy—that is, a direct primary that cannot be overturned by superdelegates or anyone else—is simply too dangerous for the continuing health of the republic and the world at large.

Our system has institutional checks for when our leaders lose their minds and put the entire country at risk.  Why shouldn’t we retain similar checks for when voters behave the same way?

The One-Dollar Founding Father

America’s Founding Fathers have interested me for as long as I can remember, but over the past few months my fascination has evolved into a full-fledged obsession.  There’s no real mystery to this:  In light of the prospective political leaders we are faced with today, it’s only natural to want to retreat into the 18th century until the 2016 election draws to a close.

As I make my way through Ron Chernow’s epic 2010 biography of George Washington—this after having (finally) gotten around to Chernow’s improbably chic bestseller Alexander Hamilton—I am reminded, with startling clarity, that the men who created this great country were at once infinitely better and infinitely worse than we tend to give them credit for—intellectually superior to their 21st century counterparts, yet cursed with the same crippling moral and temperamental deficiencies.  Human beings in every sense of the word.

From Chernow’s Washington: A Life, we find that perhaps the most salient personal quality of our first commander-in-chief was his self-restraint.  As it turns out—based on multiple firsthand accounts—George Washington possessed an explosive temper throughout his adult life that, if left unchecked, was liable to alienate friends and enemies alike and—given Washington’s unique position in society—imperil the very existence of the United States of America.

As such, Washington’s great psychological achievement—particularly during the Revolutionary War—was to suppress the urge to act out and inflict his wrath upon others.  To conduct himself with an equanimity and gravitas befitting a man whom virtually all Americans viewed as a role model, if not a savior.  To act—dare I say?—presidential.

To be sure, as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, Washington had every cause to let his anger and frustration run rampant, from drunk and disorderly troops to disloyal officers to a feckless Congress to an overpowering British adversary.  Indeed, acute aggravation would’ve been the natural, rational response to all of those setbacks and more, and few would’ve begrudged Washington for flying into a rage and saying what he really thought (in his private correspondence, he did exactly that).

And yet, because he understood that the fate of a nation depended upon a unified army held together by a strong, courageous leader, Washington somehow rose above the fray, mastering his emotions and willing himself into the unflappable icon that he is today.

To marinate in the details of Washington’s exploits is to understand why he is considered the greatest and most indispensable American who ever lived:  Because he always put the public good ahead of any personal considerations.  Rather than indulging his own interests—there were many to choose from—he forwarded the interests of a country that, through eight-plus years of war, didn’t even technically exist.  Although he had every incentive and desire to hang back and tend to his family and plantation—a property that encompassed 6,500 acres and 317 slaves—when duty called, he chose to risk everything in service to a noble cause.

Of course, it would be completely unfair to condemn any of our current political figures for not living up to George Washington’s impossibly high standard of statesmanship.  In the 216 years since Washington’s death, only a handful of individuals have even come close.

Yet with someone like Donald Trump, it is both fair and imperative to notice how supremely un-Washington-like this particular presidential candidate is—how Trump seems to embody the exact opposite of everything that made Washington so essential to the life of our young republic.

Most obvious of all, perhaps, is how thoroughly Trump has dismissed the notion of quiet dignity as being a necessary and admirable quality in a modern-day commander-in-chief.

Banking his entire candidacy on being a boorish, foul-mouthed windbag—recklessly voicing every half-formed thought that passes through his brain—Trump has espoused an abject indifference toward acting in any way “presidential,” mocking virtues like silence and moderation as the refuge of weak-willed sissies.  When challenged by reporters as to whether he will ever start behaving like a grown-up, his response—“I can be presidential, but […] it would be boring as hell”—had all the credibility of a teenager staring at a Picasso and scoffing, “I could do that—if I felt like it.”

In fact, Trump has neither the interest nor the discipline to elevate his public persona into the realm of respectability.  Unlike Washington, he is constitutionally incapable of reining himself in—as demonstrated by his failure to do so for more than a few minutes at a time before reverting back to his true self.

If, instead, we are to entertain the odd theory that Trump’s entire life up to now has been an elaborate performance and that he will magically acquire maturity upon assuming high office, we should note that it took George Washington many years and much soul-searching to shed his rougher edges in public, and that when he was as old as Trump is now, he’d been dead for two years.

As if that weren’t enough, Trump has effected another direct negation of Washingtonian class through his breathtaking propensity for vanity and naked self-promotion.

Although George Washington was a deeply ambitious man—someone who saved all of his papers in the hope they would ensure his immortality—whenever he assumed a position of high authority, he took meticulous care in removing even the appearance of having done so in self-interest or for personal gain.  By declining large salaries and exhibiting profound reluctance in undertaking the monumental roles he was offered, Washington made it plain that public service was a wholly laudable and often thankless vocation—a means of attaining eternal glory, to be sure, but by no means an avenue to material rewards or even a decent pension.

Indeed, there were few things in life that Washington found more repulsive than people who openly boasted about their own abilities and character and expressed unbounded enthusiasm for securing personal and professional advancement.  To him, ambition of any sort was something to be kept carefully hidden from public view, lest one be thought to care only about oneself and not the fortunes of the country at large.

The operative term here is honor.  In an epoch when personal clashes would occasionally be resolved on the dueling ground (see: Hamilton v. Burr), public figures were quite scrupulous about what they said in public, knowing that a misplaced slight could result in death and disgrace.  It has been noted that, were we living in such a time now, Trump’s ridiculous tussle with Ted Cruz over their wives’ looks would’ve been textbook grounds for such a confrontation, but in truth, nearly every remark by the presumptive Republican nominee would fail the standard of chivalry established throughout the 18th century and beyond.  (Then again, why should we blame Trump for exploiting a culture that allows this sort of nonsense to occur?)

I mentioned that not all of our founders’ qualities were superior to our own—and not only those relating to the crime of owning and controlling fellow human beings.  As inspiring as George Washington’s bravery and rectitude surely are, it is equally compelling to learn, for instance, that when it came to matters of business and real estate, he was a cold, lustful, ruthless tyrant.

Hungry for land and provisions at the lowest possible price, Washington snatched up tens of thousands of acres across Western Pennsylvania as soon as they became available, enacting swift measures against any squatters who tried to occupy them without paying rent.  Indeed, Great Britain’s harsh restrictions and unfair prices on frontier real estate were just as much of a motivating factor in Washington’s revolutionary zeal as were the more lofty ideals of life, liberty and self-determination.

In a fashion, all of this enterprising and speculation was a product of simple greed—the same singular driving force behind the actions of one Donald Trump.  In his private affairs, Washington exhibited a single-mindedness toward enhancing his personal wealth that we have come to loathe in the business leaders of today.

For all Washington said and wrote about wanting to end slavery once and for all, he—like virtually every other southern planter—couldn’t figure out how to emancipate his own slaves without risking total financial ruin.  In the end, the latter was more important to him than the former, leading him to free his slaves, but only upon his death, i.e. the moment his own personal comfort ceased being a concern.

Here, at least, is an area in which Donald Trump emerges one step ahead of the Father of His Country:  Whatever Trump’s true net worth, at least a teeny, tiny fraction of it goes directly to his work force.

Greatest Expectations

Who could’ve known that Donald Trump isn’t always on the level?

While we can’t yet say for sure, this week we were provided the strongest evidence to date that the presumptive GOP nominee has something to hide.  Namely, his taxes.

During one of the many Republican debates earlier this year, Trump assured us that he will disclose his most recent tax returns just as soon as the IRS completes an audit.  Then, just a few days ago, he informed us that, on second thought, he might not release them at all—or at least not until after November’s election.  If he makes good on this non-promise, he would be the first presidential nominee in 40 years to keep his tax information to himself.

Ordinarily, our leaders’ income would not necessarily be an object of our immediate interest.  However, Donald Trump has made his apparently bottomless wealth the centerpiece of his candidacy—the centerpiece of himself, really—and so when he suddenly becomes squeamish about actually showing us the state of his finances, we are justified in assuming that something shady is afoot.

Is he not nearly as rich as he claims?  Has he been stowing his taxable income in a covert hideaway in Panama or the Cayman Islands?  Does he donate little or nothing to charity?  Does he count some secret love child among his dependents?

Unless and until Trump comes clean, we have no choice but to speculate.

In any case, it’s worth noting how brazenly and completely Trump brought this impending scandal upon himself—that is, by bragging about his income and then refusing to publish his 1099s.  His evasiveness on this issue—apart from being just one more demonstration of what a rotten president he would be—signals just how unprepared he is for the world of electoral politics—in particular, the art of managing expectations.

Up to now, Trump has built and sustained his shocking popularity among GOP primary voters largely through an endless stream of hyperbolic claims and impossible promises.  Whether in a debate, TV appearance or campaign rally, Trump only ever speaks in the vaguest and most extravagant terms when trying to sell or explain his policy platform, constantly employing words like “great,” “big,” “utterly,” “beautiful,” “wonderful” and “tremendous,” leaving himself precious little time for details, nuance or substance.  Unfailingly, when asked, “How will you solve issue X?” Trump responds with some version of, “By doing something terrific.”

On the one hand, this admixture of ignorance and cynicism is—like everything else about this man—almost too ridiculous to take seriously.  On the other hand, it indicates that Trump understands the same fundamental truth that Barack Obama understood in 2008 (and Ronald Reagan in 1980), which is that in a presidential campaign, hope conquers all.  That if you successfully conjure the image of America as a shining city on a hill on which the Lord’s blessings will never cease (with or without a big, beautiful wall around it), the public just may forget all the hard work that goes into making such a prosperous American Eden possible and will vote their dreams at the expense of reality.

However, what Trump apparently doesn’t grasp is that once the election is won and the burden of governing begins, the people will gradually regain their senses and expect at least a few of their dreams to come true.  And when none of those happy fantasies come to pass, they will begin to wonder just what they voted for in the first place.

Sure:  Every president in history has made pledges he was not able to fulfill—either because circumstances (read:  Congress) wouldn’t allow it or because—gasp!—he was an opportunist who never really meant it in the first place.  Sooner or later—whether by accident or design—the president is going to disappoint every last person in America.

The difference with Trump is that he genuinely believes he is invincible and that all checks on presidential power can be transcended through the sheer force of his libido.  From his various statements on immigration and foreign policy, he is either completely ignorant about the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions (among other things) or he simply considers them negotiable.  Why listen to Madison and Hamilton when you’re the guy who wrote The Art of the Deal?

In other words, for all his confidence tricks and bluster, Trump basically believes his own nonsense.  He promises his supporters the moon and the stars because, in some corner of his psyche, he thinks he can deliver both.

Well, he can’t—at least not without violating the Constitution and committing several war crimes along the way.

Which means that, should Trump become president, one of two things will happen:  Either he will succeed at rendering our founding documents moot and establishing himself as emperor, or he will discover that 229 years of institutional checks and balances are more powerful than one man’s ego.

Indeed, if there is a silver lining to Trump’s most reprehensible ideas, it’s the impossibility of them ever getting passed.  By setting the bar so very high, Trump has set himself up to fail.  Snake oil salesman that he is, he has planted ideas in the minds of his supporters that, by definition, will never come to pass.

Here, then, is the best argument yet that Trump is truly not a politician.  If he were, he would’ve caught on by now that campaign pledges are more than just words.  That once he’s in power, he just might be held to account for them and be judged accordingly.  That after four years of disappointment, those video clips of him saying, “We’ll have so much winning if I’m elected that you may get bored with winning,” will look even dumber than they look now.

It is my continued belief that Trump had no intention of doing this well in the primaries—let alone of becoming the nominee—and he therefore never saw any reason to calibrate his vision for America to how the government actually functions.  So long as his candidacy remained a manic pipe dream, he could swing for the fences without consequence.

However, now that he is effectively the face of the Republican Party, he is in the unenviable position of having to put up or shut up.  And we know full well that he is incapable of either one.

The Unwelcome Truth

Some years back, while promoting his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Founding Brothers, historian Joseph Ellis offered this pithy comparison of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams:

“Jefferson tells us what we want to hear.  Adams tells us what we need to know.  [Adams] is the person who will always tell you the most unattractive truth that you know is true.”

Ellis went on to argue that Adams—quite unlike his successor to the presidency—is “the most unappreciated great man in American history.”

Could it be that those two statements are somehow related?  That Adams’ relative historical obscurity is a direct consequence of his refusal to sugarcoat his deepest, darkest intimations about the new American republic?

Of course this is the case, and there is more wisdom in that connection than any of us could fully appreciate—not least in an election year like this one.

While one simplifies the Founding Fathers at one’s peril, it seems clear enough that the enduring preeminence of Thomas Jefferson in the popular imagination owes to how Jefferson was, at his core, a romantic dreamer.  Writing that “all men are created equal” while holding some 200 human beings in bondage and singing the praises of the humble farmer while residing on a remote, lavish estate, Jefferson’s contribution to the American Revolution was to imagine a country and its citizenry as they perhaps should be, but not—by any stretch of the imagination—as they actually were.

Notwithstanding his timeless proclamations about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—words that we invoke on an almost daily basis—Jefferson was, in so many ways, a hopeless idealist with a highly tenuous grasp of reality.  Apart from the howling contradictions of his own existence, his vision for what might eventually turn the United States into a global superpower—a decentralized agrarian society removed from big cities and big banks—was curiously and profoundly out of touch with several key insights about economics and human nature.

We can admire Jefferson’s ideals all we want, but we should also realize how lucky we are not to have taken most of his policy prescriptions seriously.

In the end, America survived and prospered as a muscular, unified republic by heeding the advice of those who spoke in cold facts rather than warm fantasies—people who understood, for instance, that pure democracy could not be implemented without risking anarchy and mob rule, or that the surest means of establishing international credit was by incurring a national debt.

These are not terribly appealing thoughts—certainly no candidate could get far on them today—and yet they were, by and large, the secret to our success.  America may owe its poetry and lofty principles to Thomas Jefferson, but its unshakable foundations were the work of combative, hard-headed realists like John Adams, James Madison and, of course, that plucky immigrant currently running roughshod on Broadway.

It is certainly ironic—as innumerable experts have pointed out—that Alexander Hamilton has become America’s new favorite founder at precisely the moment when many of his deepest political convictions—big government, big banks, a big national debt—have fallen utterly out of favor among most American voters.

Indeed, prior to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play—and certainly prior to Ron Chernow’s book—Hamilton was every bit as overlooked as John Adams, and for many of the same reasons:  Like Adams, Hamilton built his legacy on telling unsexy truths about how a great country ought to be run, heedless of how unpopular such heresies might be and with an enormous skepticism for the intelligence and wisdom of the common man.  (A personality trait that the musical wisely suppresses.)

It goes without saying that such an openly dismissive and elitist attitude toward the public would make it impossible for men like Adams and Hamilton to be elected president today, and it’s equally worth noting that when Adams was elected, in 1796, a whopping 2 percent of eligible voters cast ballots before the all-powerful Electoral College took over.  (Hamilton, meanwhile, never held elected office in his life.)

And so we are brought to a most unwelcome, yet essential, conclusion:  Historically, the men and women best-equipped to lead this great nation have been—by virtue of their unromantic and clear-eyed dispositions—those least likely to secure enough votes to do so.

Put simply:  As a people, we will always opt for the candidate who tells us what we want to hear over the candidate who tells us what we need to know.  We bitch and moan about how cravenly our presidential candidates “pander,” but of course that’s exactly what we want them to do:  We want all of our dearest political convictions confirmed, not challenged, and we want to be reassured that we are on the right side of every issue.  Invariably, it is the panderers who ultimately triumph on Election Day while the so-called “straight talkers” are increasingly left in the dust.

To a degree, this truism helps explain the supposedly inexplicable success of Donald Trump.  For the plurality of GOP voters who adore him, Trump espouses all of their basest and most selfish suspicions about who is to “blame” for all the trouble in the world—principally, Mexicans, Muslims and the Chinese—while offering the most laughably vague and fantastical “solutions” to these (largely imaginary) problems:  For all that anyone can decipher, Trump’s official agenda entails little more than waving a magic wand and bringing America’s enemies to heel.

For all of his odd (and occasionally admirable) digressions from traditional Republican orthodoxy, Trump’s overall shtick is to assure his minions they have done nothing to deserve their dire economic status and that all of their troubles can be willed away if they would only make Trump their party’s nominee.

Among Democrats the situation is more complicated, as the candidate who is most guilty of pandering to liberals’ sacred ideals is also the one most commended for “telling it like it is.”  In point of fact, among all the major contenders on both sides, it has been Bernie Sanders whose essence as a potential president has warranted the most dramatic revision over the past year and change.

From the beginning, Sanders’ ace in the hole has been the notion that he—and not Hillary Clinton—is the one Democrat brave enough to identify the true sources of America’s glaring economic inequality (read: Wall Street and big banks) and to advocate for a “political revolution” to reverse the popular suffering those nefarious villains have caused.

Fair enough, but isn’t that a textbook case of telling voters what they want to hear?  When speaking to a gaggle of class-conscious liberal Democrats—aka Bernie’s natural constituency—isn’t blaming wealthy speculators for virtually all of America’s ills just another form of preaching to the converted?  Even if the charge itself is essentially true—and there is no doubt Sanders believes it to be true—what exactly is so courageous about pointing a finger at “them” in order to allow “us” to see ourselves as morally in the right?

In any case, Sanders’ real problem up to now has been his unwillingness and/or inability to square his wildest dreams about economic justice with the overwhelming arithmetical difficulty of enacting those ideals into law.

Bernie can bang on all he wants about how the greatest country on Earth should be able to provide health care and education for all of its citizens—a claim that, in effect, constitutes his entire stump speech—but so long as he continues to evade the obvious rejoinders—How much will it cost and why would Congress ever go along with it?—he is not telling us what we need to know.

If Sanders really wanted to make us uncomfortable—if he were to truly live up to his billing as the straight-talking-est candidate of them all—he would recognize the ways in which his opponent, Hillary Clinton, has been correct all along.  He would acknowledge, for instance, that in order to change the system, you must work within (and with) the system, and that if you hope to get even half of what you want—in this case, some pretty enormous tax increases—you’d better be prepared to give something pretty sweet in return.

Here (to quote Joseph Ellis again) is where we find “the most unattractive truth that you know is true,” which is that when it comes to governing, compromise is not just a virtue, but a necessity.  Unless Sanders intends to rule by royal decree—a most peculiar form of socialism if ever I saw one—his administration will have to operate like every administration before it:  Through a series of bargains and quid pro quos, with a fair share of wheeling, dealing and needling to go along with it.

In what has become just about everyone’s favorite song from Hamilton—you know the one!—we are ominously and depressingly reminded:

“The art of the compromise / hold your nose and close your eyes / we want our leaders to save the day / but we don’t get a say in what they trade away / we dream of a brand new start / but we dream in the dark for the most part.”

That’s government, folks:  A long, painful stumble through the darkness in search of the tiniest, faintest glimmer of light.  An election is a choice between better and worse, not good and bad—as Bill Maher has said, “Perfect is not on the menu”—and we should be very wary, indeed, of any candidate who presumes to possess a magic bullet that can cure our imperfect system once and for all.

Hillary Clinton, for all her equivocations and unscrupulousness, seems to grasp the inherent intractability of the government she intends to lead, and her relatively modest expectations for success are—in their own way—a form of political courage.  She is the only major player in this year’s campaign who has told her own supporters they cannot have everything they want, so they might as well stop pretending otherwise.

Could it be that Hillary, and not Bernie, is the straight shooter we’ve been looking for this whole time?  Or would that be a truth that we simply could not handle?

History Has Its Eyes on You

Every action has an equal, opposite reaction, and so whenever any piece of popular culture becomes a runaway success, you can set your watch to the moment when the backlash comes roaring up behind it.

Seeing as Americans are determined never to agree on anything—albeit some of us more vigorously than others—it is inevitable—and probably for the best—that even the most widely and deeply beloved of our national treasures will sooner or later find a detractor or two hiding under some rock or other.

However, for a good long while, it appeared that in this regard—as in so many others—Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton was truly one-of-a-kind.  That this audacious, revisionist Broadway musical-cum-history lesson had transcended all the usual cultural mores, rules and laws (including gravity) to emerge as the one thing on which everyone can agree.  Call it the Adele of the Great White Way.

As a true believer, I was perfectly fine with this rarefied mass ecstasy over (of all things) an expensive Broadway show.  As much as I value open debate on practically any subject, listening to the Hamilton cast album over and over has become something approaching a religious experience, and we all know what happens to reasoned dissent once religion enters the picture.

All the same, over the last week or so, a sort of anti-Hamilton faction has finally—finally!—begun to consolidate in various online media outlets.  While I have so far found the arguments in these pieces generally misguided and unconvincing, it is imperative that my fellow fanatics take a break from their unconditional Hamilton love and read them.  They might be surprised how much they learn.

While these critiques are by no means interchangeable—their authors approach Hamilton in different ways and reach different conclusions—they tend to focus on one of two claims:  First, that Hamilton is not as historically accurate as it appears; and second, that it is not as socially progressive or “revolutionary” as its creators and fans have proclaimed.

At first blush, the complaints about accuracy could be dismissed as preposterous—not because they’re false, mind you, but rather because strict adherence to historical truth is so obviously not this show’s primary objective.  To any fair-minded listener, it should become clear—say, during the Cabinet meeting where Hamilton tells Jefferson, “Sittin’ there useless as two shits / Hey, turn around, bend over, I’ll show you / Where my shoe fits”—that Miranda has granted himself certain liberties with the Founding Fathers that are, shall we say, fairly easy to infer.

It is the nature and the right of historical dramas to take history into their own hands for the sake of clarity and entertainment.  One must never let facts get in the way of a good story (as Mark Twain may or may not have said) and while the Revolution is undoubtedly one of the greatest stories of all time, artists have always manipulated the events of 1776 to their own ends.  It is absurd to hold dramatists to the same academic standard as historians and biographers.  “All we can reasonably ask,” Roger Ebert once wrote about a certain film, “is that it be skillfully made and seem to approach some kind of emotional truth.”

That brings us to the more compelling and provocative critique, which says that—contrary to the prevailing view that Hamilton is a watershed moment in American culture—there is actually nothing historically innovative about Miranda’s take on the Founding Fathers.  Specifically, that despite its ethnically diverse cast and über-contemporary soundtrack, Hamilton is ultimately just one more show that lionizes famous white men—and only white men—who birthed a nation that purposefully and violently excluded African-Americans and other undesirables from realizing their fullest potential as human beings.

In her superb essay, “Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton,” Rutgers professor Lyra D. Monteiro sees Hamilton as a continuation of so-called “founders chic,” observing, “[D]espite the proliferation of black and brown bodies onstage, not a single enslaved or free person of color exists as a character in this play. […] Unless one listens carefully to the lyrics—which do mention slavery a handful of times—one could easily assume that slavery did not exist in this world, and certainly that it was not an important part of the lives and livelihoods of the men who created the nation.”  (Monteiro then proceeds to name several black individuals who could easily have figured into Miranda’s story.)

Continuing this thought in an equally-thoughtful blog post, “Why Hamilton is Not the Revolution You Think it is,” NYU PhD student James McMaster writes:

“[I]n Hamilton, the fact that the white men that founded the United States—colonizers all, slaveholders some—are played by men of color actually obfuscates histories of racialized violence in the United States.  Case in point:  During ‘Cabinet Battle #1,’ when the talented Daveed Diggs argues as Thomas Jefferson for the security of the South’s slave-holding economy, the actor’s blackness visually distances his performance of racism from Jefferson’s whiteness, enabling a (largely white) audience to forget the degree to which they are implicated in the violent, anti-black histories of the United States.”

While we should all be extremely grateful for these reminders of the truth—the whole truth—of how this country came into being, my immediate response to these charges with regards to Hamilton is through an old Stephen Hawking line:  “You can’t think of everything.”

Or, to put it slightly less glibly:  Lin-Manuel Miranda devised a particular way to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton that would serve his own interests, which meant that a boatload of other interests—however worthy—would necessarily be left on the cutting room floor.

In point of fact, the writing of every play, movie and book in history has involved including a million little details while omitting a million others.  To be a writer is to be an editor and a synthesizer—as David McCullough once said, “I’m not a writer; I’m a re-writer”—which requires making choices that both sharpen and narrow the focus of one’s work in order not to juggle too many balls at once.

Contra Monteiro, who takes issue with Hamilton’s tagline, “The story of America then, told by American now,” I interpret the race-conscious casting not as a means to conceal the founders’ inherent white supremacy, but rather to demonstrate that the ideals for which they fought apply to people of all races.  That most of the founders clearly didn’t intend this at the time is an irony that cannot (and should not) be overlooked, and part of what makes Hamilton so irresistible is the implicit knowledge that if the real people suddenly materialized and saw themselves being portrayed by the likes of Leslie Odom, Jr., and Daveed Diggs, their expressions would be worth well over 1,000 words each.

In short:  Hamilton does not directly confront the realities and consequences of slavery because, in the end, that’s not what the play is about.  Miranda chose to dramatize the life of Alexander Hamilton and the handful of powerful people with whom he interacted, and that is how the piece should be judged.  Call me old-fashioned, but I find it slightly unfair to critique an artist for the work he didn’t produce rather than the work he did.

This does not mean that objections like the ones above should not be raised and heard.  If Hamilton has any purpose beyond entertainment, it’s to stimulate interest in the history of the United States—including the history that Hamilton does not have the time or inclination to cover.  If Miranda and company truly intend to democratize the country’s founding, they should own the ways in which their own efforts are incomplete.  They don’t need to be complete, but nor should they suggest that they are.

As it stands, we are left with exactly what we’ve always had:  A brilliant, addictive piece of theatre that we can love and question at the same time.  A guaranteed job creator for every talented non-white actor in New York that is nonetheless a celebration of dead, white slavers.

The truth is that Hamilton invited this minefield of hypocrisy the moment it took on America as its primary subject.  As a wise man said:  It’s full of contradictions, but so is independence.