When the Unthinkable Happens

A few years back, historian Joseph Ellis wrote a terrific little book called Revolutionary Summer, which revisited the events of 1776 in Philadelphia and New York, and concluded that the entire fate of the Revolutionary War—and, therefore, the United States itself—was sealed in those few extraordinary months.

The essence of Ellis’s case was that, although Great Britain enjoyed overwhelming tactical advantages throughout the war—its troops were better-armed, better-trained, more experienced and, by far, more numerous—in the end, the Continental Army was fundamentally unbeatable.  As the war’s home team—its soldiers culled from the very land on which they were fighting—George Washington’s troops were an endlessly renewable resource with everything to gain and very little to lose.  As miserable as their experience was, they were never going to give up the fight, since, unlike the British, they had nowhere else to go.

“Whereas most people have said, ‘How in heaven’s name did a ragtag group of amateur soldiers defeat the greatest military power on the planet?’” said Ellis upon the release of his book, “The real issue is:  Did the British ever really have a chance?  I don’t think they did.”

It’s a compelling piece of historical revisionism, and a companion to Ellis’s assertion in his most celebrated book, Founding Brothers, that “no event in American history which was so improbable at the time has seemed so inevitable in retrospect as the American Revolution.”

So improbable at the time, so inevitable in retrospect.  Those words have been floating around my head a lot over the last 48 hours, as I continue to grapple with the fact that a racist, authoritarian windbag has been elected the 45th president of the United States, despite assurances by just about every political pundit on Earth that such a thing could never, ever occur on American soil.

Well, it did occur.  Practically no one expected it, but it happened, anyway.  And as half the country reaches for the cyanide tablets, stuck somewhere between denial and depression on the Kübler-Ross scale, we have to wonder how history is going to handle the events of 2016 many years from now.

Will the ascendancy of Donald Trump be seen as an inexplicable aberration in an otherwise logical series of events?  A perfect storm of madness caused by a handful of Mississippi Klansmen and an Electoral College snafu?  An insane historical theft of America’s first woman president by a boor who never really wanted the job in the first place?

Or—to Ellis’s point—will we instead come to view Trump’s victory as completely foreseeable?  As a natural progression of American populism that began with extreme anger toward George W. Bush and gradually transformed into extreme anger toward Barack Obama?  In other words, after spending the balance of 2016 more or less assuming Hillary Clinton had this thing in the bag, will we ultimately conclude that a Trump win was the only possible way this election could’ve ended?

History has a way of surprising us in big ways, and it’s the job of both historians and the general public to continually re-interpret everything that ever happened in the past to understand what the hell is happening in the present.

After 9/11, for instance, many people decided that the late 1990s weren’t quite as peaceful as they seemed at the time, as bands of jihadists worked secretly on a plan to totally upend the world order.  More than eight decades earlier, the entire nature of Europe was reassessed after a 19-year-old Serb murdered the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, somehow triggering a world war that claimed 16 million lives and ended four empires.  I dare say that few people saw that coming prior to 1914.

While it is yet to be seen whether the rise of Donald Trump will stand as an equally cataclysmic event in human affairs—and, if so, what sort of cataclysm it will be—we are already tasked with reverse-engineering the narrative of 2016 so it matches up with what it produced in the end.  Had Hillary Clinton won on Tuesday—as we thought she was destined to do—the story of this election would’ve been the shattering of the glass ceiling, the vindication of Barack Obama’s presidency and the rejection of the brutalism that Trump and his “basket of deplorables” so proudly and execrably represent.

Instead, we got the exact opposite in every respect, and it will take quite a while for us to collectively agree on just what that means in the long arc of history.  We could conclude—as many analysts have—that Trump’s win signifies that his anti-establishment, anti-immigrant, isolationist bellowing resonated with a majority of Americans, but how do we square that with the fact that Hillary Clinton actually received more votes nationwide?  While the Electoral College allowed Trump to become the next president, how can we say that Trump’s message won the day when his name was marked on only the second-highest number of ballots?

In time, we may know for sure.  For now, we can only guess.

The journalist I.F. Stone famously said that history is more of a tragedy than a morality tale.  At the moment, perhaps an even more fitting sentiment comes from James Joyce, who called history “a nightmare from which I am trying to wake.”  Either way, the essential lesson is that events don’t always unfold as you think they should—or, indeed, as you think they must—and that sometimes the unthinkable is staring us right in the face, if only we had the nerve to see it.

Like America itself, the notion of Donald Trump as president was a crazy, reckless, impossible idea right up until the moment that it became a living, groping reality.  We all assured each other the American people had a certain moral firewall that would prevent certain things from ever happening, yet now we have all become President Muffley in Dr. Strangelove, bitterly informing General Turgidson, “I am becoming less and less interested in your estimates of what is possible and impossible.”

That is the correct attitude to strike about the nature of human events, and history has borne it out over and over again.  Now that an American Mussolini is going to be the most powerful person on planet Earth, we no longer have the luxury to assume the world will ever again make any sense.

The Price of Independence

Monday is the Fourth of July—that most joyous, triumphant day in which Americans gather ’round the barbecue grill and celebrate the moment 240 years ago when our Founding Fathers—the most brilliant men of their generation—summoned all of their creative energies in the singular cause of perpetuating slavery for 89 more years.

OK, so that wasn’t the only thing the men in the Continental Congress accomplished in the summer of 1776.  In ratifying the Declaration of Independence, the Congress established—against all historical precedent—that nations ought to be governed by laws, not men, and that the men writing and enforcing those laws ought to be representative of—and accountable to—the common, everyday folk.  And, of course, this was all rooted in the radical idea that all men are created equal and are endowed with certain unalienable rights, etc, etc.

So they did that—renouncing the most ancient, repressive form of government on Earth while proposing an alternative that had scarcely ever been tried before, thereby laying the foundation for what would eventually become the most prosperous republic that has ever existed.  In effect, this group of extraordinary men seized an extraordinary opportunity, realizing that, in the words of Thomas Paine, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

Which begs the question:  Why did this new world include chattel slavery?

It’s a contradiction that has grown more inexplicable with each passing July 4—namely, that these rabble-rousers could ground their entire revolutionary argument on the principle of universal equality while simultaneously preserving an institution that was a negation of that principle in every possible respect.

Many Americans today seem to think the founders were simply oblivious to it all—that they didn’t realize that owning human beings was a direct violation of the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that this magic document promised to establish and uphold.

While there is a certain perverse appeal in assuming the men who created America were a bunch of idiots who couldn’t see what was staring them directly in the face, the truth is at once more nuanced, more tragic and more shameful.

In point of fact, the signers of the Declaration were entirely cognizant of the moral pretzel they were contorting themselves into, and the proof is the following paragraph from Thomas Jefferson’s original—and, he believed, superior—draft:

“[The king] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.  This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain.  Determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.”

As far as the morality of slavery is concerned, it doesn’t get any clearer than that.  Here, as in so many other places, we find that Jefferson in 1776 understood instinctively that slavery was an evil economic engine that, in making people into property, robbed them of their dignity and betrayed their most basic rights as human beings.  As a Virginia planter who eventually owned upwards of 200 slaves himself—four of whom were his biological children—Jefferson knew these self-evident truths more deeply than most, although he was hardly the only one.

That’s the nuance.  The tragedy and the shame is that Jefferson’s full-throated condemnation of the slave trade never made it into the final draft of the Declaration, thereby taking emancipation off the table as a subject for debate anytime in the near-future.

And why was that, ladies and gentlemen?  Why did the Continental Congress neglect to confront a massive, obvious problem at the very moment when it might have done everyone the most good?

In short:  Because they could only solve one massive, obvious problem at a time.

The choice was mutually exclusive:  Either they could declare independence or they could try to get rid of slavery.  Given the intractable realities of the day, there was no plausible way to free their slaves under any circumstances; meanwhile, the challenge of separating from Great Britain—an objective that several colonies resisted until the very last moment—would only come about on the condition that slavery be totally ignored until some unspecified future date.

As any viewer of 1776 will know, the Declaration of Independence needed to be ratified without a single dissenting vote, and it was as clear as the bright, blue sky that the delegates from North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia would’ve never, ever voted “yes” if it meant giving up an institution that constituted their entire way of life.  In 1776—as in 1861 and all the years in between—the continuance of slavery was, for the American South, utterly non-negotiable.

(We should also note—before we give him too much credit—that Jefferson went to his grave believing blacks were biologically inferior to whites, that a biracial society was impossible and that the only way to free the slaves was to ship them overseas and never deal with them again.)

And so—considering the world as it actually was, rather than as we wish it had been—we are left to ask:  Did the Founding Fathers do the right thing in July of 1776?

While counterfactuals are inherently unknowable and somewhat useless, it’s worth noting that Great Britain abolished slavery in 1833—a full 32 years before we did.  Is it possible that, by simply staying in the empire, the United States would have been cleansed of its original stain at least one generation ahead of schedule?  Are we entirely sure that life for the average American—let alone the average black American—was improved by breaking off from the empire when (and as) we did?  In retrospect, could the entire American Revolution have been one big terrible mistake?

In the end, we’re stuck with the history that actually happened and must deal with the facts that were known at the time.  In that context, the best we can do is to reclaim the truth of America’s founding by observing how morally ambiguous it truly was.  We cannot proclaim July 4 as a wholly virtuous moment without making racist spectacles of ourselves, but nor can we dismiss the whole episode as the source of all white supremacy in America, since the very words of Jefferson’s declaration would, in time, come to embody the strongest argument for the racial equality that we have been stumbling our way towards for the past century and a half.

That Jefferson’s generation couldn’t live up to its own standard is a singular tragedy; their calculated inaction on slavery is directly responsible for many millions of deaths and more misery than any of us could ever fully appreciate.  That these same men can simultaneously be held up as national heroes and beacons of liberty is the sort of grand irony that perhaps only a place like the United States is at once sturdy and deluded enough to withstand.

As ever, America is a land of contradiction and hypocrisy, and if we don’t spent a good deal of July 4 reflecting on this, then we are not treating our country with the integrity it deserves.

Further, by acknowledging the impossibly compromised choice with which our founders were confronted, we are reminded that there is no such thing as an easy solution to a seismic problem.  Every major political decision involves a trade-off of one sort or another, and if you enter a negotiation expecting to get everything you want, you just may wind up with nothing at all.

The Founding Fathers sought independence, and the price turned out to be the life of every black person born between 1700 and 1865.  In that moment—not knowing how bad things would get—they believed it was worth it.  Today—with all the benefit of hindsight—are we yet prepared to say they were right?

A Spot of Revolution

On June 23, the people of Great Britain voted narrowly to remove themselves from the European Union.  Although the decision occurred 11 days shy of July 4, many of those in favor of this so-called “Brexit” have interpreted it as Britain’s own declaration of independence.  Prominent English politicians Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have framed it as such, as has noted historian Sarah Palin, who went so far as to draw a straight line from Britons’ rebellion against the EU to the American rebellion of 1776 that we will be duly celebrating six days hence.

While there may indeed be superficial similarities between these two politically seismic events—in this of all weeks, such comparisons are hard to resist—the truth is that we have far more to learn from what makes them different than from what ties them together.

Chief among these differences—or at least the most ironic—is that this new British separation from Europe came about through democratic means and reflects the unambiguous will of the people.  On both counts, the American Revolution most assuredly did not.

It’s an easy thing to forget, but the process by which a free and independent United States of America emerged from the tentacles of an overreaching, overtaxing British Empire was about as far from pure democracy as such an act could be and was, by all accounts, both undesired and unpopular among the inhabitants of the 13 colonies at the time.

Although formal opinion polls did not exist at the end of the 18th century (too much work for the horses), no less than John Adams estimated that the American public in 1776 was probably divided evenly into three groups:  Patriots, loyalists and fence-sitters.  That’s to say that—annoying as taxation without representation undoubtedly was—only about one-third of ordinary colonists agreed that declaring independence was a good idea.

In other words, the momentous decision by a band of renegades to secede from the world’s mightiest empire—an audacious, treasonous and altogether cataclysmic move—was made in defiance of the wishes of a supermajority of the public at large—a fact made all the more glaring by the Declaration’s pretence of creating a democratic, self-governing society that derived its authority from “the consent of the governed.”

The delegates to the Continental Congress, for their part, were selected by the legislatures of their respective colonies—a vaguely republican system for the time—which then enabled said delegates to do whatever the hell they wanted once they got to Philadelphia.

And that—with very few exceptions—is exactly what they did.  By and large, those who voted for independence in July of 1776 did so from a mixture of personal conviction, horse trading with fellow delegates and a general sense of which way the wind was blowing.  In any case, the so-called “will of the people” never really entered into the equation since, for all intents and purposes, the Continental Congress was the people.  (We need hardly add that the Congress was 100 percent male and 100 percent white.)

It’s not that the Founding Fathers were indifferent to public opinion—as the war heated up, securing popular support became essential to sustaining the Continental Army—but they certainly didn’t consider it legally binding.  In the opening decade of the American republic, the word “democratic” was an epithet that conjured images of mobs and anarchists who reacted to leaders they didn’t like by burning them in effigy.  The aforementioned John Adams went to his grave believing his finest moment as president was to have averted war with France in 1800 despite overwhelming popular support for just such a war.  For Adams, defying the will of the people was the ultimate badge of honor, and hindsight has surely borne him out.

Of course, to marinate in the facts of America’s founding is to reach some extremely ambivalent conclusions about democracy, realizing, as we must, that those men in wigs and puffy shirts got along just fine without it.  In a way, the Founding Fathers ruined it for everyone by being so exceptional:  In the hands of anyone else, the plainly elitist nature of the Continental Congress—and later the Constitutional Convention—would’ve flatly negated the very principles it claimed to stand for and strangled our infant nation before it ever had a chance to breathe.

However, because the founders were so faithful to the cause of liberty and freedom—and not merely to their own self-interests—they somehow managed to negotiate the contradictions their experience in nation-building required and allow future generations to live up the standards that they themselves did not.

In the Western world today, democracy through popular vote is taken more or less for granted, while major decisions made behind closed doors are looked upon with high skepticism, if not outright contempt.  Yet we cannot ignore the reality, in the U.S. and U.K. alike, that almost every political decision—major and minor—is enacted not by “the people” but rather by representatives of the people who, in the end, behave however they damn well please, assuming—often correctly—that they will never be held to account when and if things go wrong.

In some quarters, this week’s “Brexit” vote has been hailed as a heroic popular revolt against such elitism, while in others it has been seen as a cautionary tale against allowing direct democracy to carry the day.  (Not that these interpretations are necessarily mutually exclusive.)

The million-dollar question, in any case, is whether popular rule is the solution to all conflicts or whether, instead, there are some questions that are simply too important to be decided by the whim of the majority.  In a typically cutting op-ed in Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi argues for the former, writing, “If you believe there’s such a thing as ‘too much democracy,’ you probably don’t believe in democracy at all.”  Taibbi was responding, in part, to a Boston Globe op-ed by Harvard professor Kenneth Rogoff, who observed, “Since ancient times, philosophers have tried to devise systems to try to balance the strengths of majority rule against the need to ensure that informed parties get a larger say in critical decisions.”

The natural follow-up, then, is who exactly are these “informed parties” and what qualifies them as such?  For that matter, how do we establish which decisions are “critical” and which are less so?

We might agree that some citizens are smarter and wiser than others and that direct democracy is too unwieldy to be exercised on a daily basis, but how do we reconcile these assumptions with the democratic ideal that no citizen’s voice is valued higher than any other?  The short answer—based on some 240 years of experience on this side of the Atlantic—is that we don’t reconcile at all.  We simply learn to live with the contradiction.

For now, we can occupy ourselves with the double irony that, on the question of declaring independence of one form or another, America employed elitism in the service of promoting democracy, while Britain employed democracy in reasserting its identity as a nation that is still technically ruled by a monarch.  Karl Marx famously said history repeats itself “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”  Depending how the next few months go, “Brexit” may unleash both at the same time.

Could Be Worse

Is this the worst presidential election in history?  Only if you know nothing about history.

Would Donald Trump be the worst president of all time?  Maybe, but I certainly wouldn’t bet the house on it.

Over the last month or so—as the precise character of the 2016 election has taken form—there has been an endless parade of rhetoric in favor of one or both of the aforementioned claims.  An assumed general election match-up between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, we have been told, represents the most wretched choice the American public has faced in many moons—if not ever—and should the presumptive Republican nominee emerge victorious on November 8, it would likely portend the fall of Western civilization as we know it.

The latter, of course, is a matter of pure speculation until the unspeakable actually occurs.  As for the former:  Don’t be ridiculous.  The championship match of the 2016 campaign—uninspiring as it might be—hardly represents a nadir in the history of U.S. presidential elections.  That we have convinced ourselves otherwise is less a product of our increasingly lackluster candidates than of our unjustifiably heightened expectations thereof.

As with so much else, we in the present like to think we live in exceptional times when it comes to presidential politics—in this case, exceptionally bad—and that our generation of voters deserves a heap of pity that all previous generations managed to avoid.

What ignorant hogwash this is.

All the way back in 1905, in writing about politics in the 1870s, historian Henry Adams dryly observed, “The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.”  Ninety-nine years later, surveying the 2004 contest between George W. Bush and John Kerry, comedian Lewis Black similarly quipped, “If this is evolution in terms of leadership, I think in 12 years we’re gonna be voting for plants.”

Whether or not Black’s assessment has proved correct (those dozen years are now officially up), it is clear enough that the perception of having a lackluster roster of potential presidents is the oldest, stalest gripe in the book.  Contrary to popular belief, Americans have always been disappointed by the people who’ve run to lead them, viewing every election as a search for—well, if not the lesser evil, then at least the person with a fighting chance of not making life any more miserable than it already is.

We elect a commander-in-chief for all sorts of reasons and under many different circumstances, but it’s always with the subtext—spoken or unspoken—that the available options are hardly the best specimens America has to offer.

We often compare our present-day leaders (unfavorably) to those of the founding generation, viewing the latter as the high water mark for intellectual and political brilliance in the history of this or any country.  Indeed, that’s exactly what they were, and the sad truth is that the Founding Fathers were simply the exception to the rule:  George Washington, for his part, didn’t even want to be president except to avert a possible civil war, while his next five successors got the job on the strength of having directly contributed to the American Revolution—a prerequisite that, by definition, could not be reproduced in any other era.

Following the populist upheaval fostered by one Andrew Jackson—a man of extraordinary physical courage who, if he ran today, would be roundly dismissed as a raging psychopath—Americans elected a series of chief executives of such immense mediocrity—often against equally humdrum opponents—that few citizens today could even recite their names.  Much the same was the case in between the end of the Civil War and the rise of Teddy Roosevelt in 1901.  Indeed, one could argue that, except for Abraham Lincoln, the final two-thirds of the 19th century were one giant muddle of executive leadership to which no one would want to return.

And yet return we have, over and over again.  For all our insistence that only the best and the brightest seek and execute the most powerful post on planet Earth, we have spent most of American history dealing with the uncomfortable truth that, on the whole—and especially now—the most brilliant people in the country are not interested in running for elected office:  They’re busy curing diseases, inventing self-driving cars, building skyscrapers and writing Broadway musicals.

Even before presidential campaigns became the insane carnival acts they are today, the incentive for dedicating one’s talents to the public good has been in decline since practically the dawn of the republic, which means that the slack will inevitably be picked up by aspirants who are intellectually and morally inferior.

To be sure, this doesn’t mean that the occasional prodigy hasn’t occasionally slipped through.  We have, after all, just enjoyed two terms with a president who—imperfections notwithstanding—is an exceptionally deep thinker, capable of speaking and writing elegantly, clearly and at length, and (to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald) adept at holding opposing ideas in his head without losing the ability to function.

If today’s voters—particularly those under 30—feel short-changed by this year’s options, it’s largely a consequence of having been spoiled by arguably the hippest man who has ever held this job.  Indeed, for every voting American born after 1986, this will be the first presidential election in which Barack Obama’s name will not be on the ballot.  (Were it not for the 22nd Amendment, one suspects 2016 would’ve gone very differently, indeed.)

And yet, for those very voters, it would be difficult—on paper, at least—to craft a more agreeable and logical successor than someone who spent eight years in the White House, eight years in the Senate and four years in the State Department and who, by the way, is openly campaigning for Obama’s third term and possesses a mastery of policy nuance light years ahead of Obama’s at this point in his 2008 campaign.

This is not to say that Hillary Clinton is perfect or that someone who is qualified on paper is also qualified in real life.  Having been a nationally-known figure for nearly a quarter-century, Clinton carries clear shortcomings and asterisks, and her ascendancy would be a calculated risk on all of our parts.

In other words, Hillary is flawed.  But you know which other presidential candidates have been flawed?  All of them.

In truth, every person who has ever sought the Oval Office has been ill-qualified to one degree or another.  That’s the nature of the gig.  The fantastical notion of an Ideal Candidate—someone with the right skills at the right time—has rarely been borne out by history, and we have little reason to expect such a thing in the near future.

Contra Trump, Clinton is as solid a candidate as you would expect our system to produce:  Wily, intelligent, hardworking, compassionate, compromising, gritty and ruthless.  If you expect more than that in a modern-day commander-in-chief, you just may expect too much.

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.

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.