The Man Who Wouldn’t Be King

It says a lot about America that John McCain was never elected president.  It says even more that, in retrospect, we sort of wish he had been.

Indeed, all the way back in 2001, during an interview with Charlie Rose (ahem), Bill Maher cited McCain—recently defeated in the GOP primaries by George W. Bush—as among his favorite Republican politicians.  “He’s everyone’s favorite,” said Rose, to which Maher dismissively retorted, “Then why doesn’t he win?”

It’s a damn good question, and a useful lens through which to view our entire political system.  As McCain clings ever-more-precariously to life—having spent the last 10 months ravaged by glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer—we might reflect on the strange way that our most accomplished and admired public officials tend not to rise all the way to the Oval Office—and why a great many more never bother to run in the first place.

On paper, McCain would seem exactly the sort of person the Founding Fathers had in mind as a national leader:  A scrappy rebel from a distinguished family who proves his mettle on the battlefield, then parlays that fame into a steady career in public service.  (He was first elected to Congress in 1982 and has never held another job.)

While hardly a first-class intellect—he famously graduated near the bottom of his class at Annapolis—McCain’s grit and endurance through five-and-a-half years of torture and deprivation in a Vietnamese prison forever burnished his reputation as among the most indefatigable men in American life—someone who would speak truth to bullshit and hold no loyalties except to his own conscience.  Having cheated death multiple times, here was a man with precious little to fear and even less to lose.

Against this noble backdrop, it would be the understatement of the year to say that, as a two-time presidential candidate, John McCain was a complicated and contradictory figure—perhaps even a tragic one.  In 2000, he established his political persona as a crusty, “straight-talking” “maverick,” only to be felled in South Carolina by a racist Bush-sanctioned robocall operation that McCain was too gentlemanly to condemn.  (The robocalls implied, among other things, that McCain’s adopted daughter from Bangladesh was an out-of-wedlock “love child.”)

Eight years later, having learned a thing or three about brass-knuckles campaigning, McCain scraped and clawed his way to the Republican nomination—besting no fewer than 11 competitors—only to throw it all away with the single most irresponsible decision of his life:  His selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate.

With nearly a decade of hindsight, the science is in that choosing Palin—a world-class ignoramus and America’s gateway drug to Donald Trump—constituted the selling of McCain’s soul for the sake of political expediency.  Rather than running with his good friend (and non-Republican) Joe Lieberman and losing honorably, he opted to follow his advisers’ reckless gamble and win dishonorably.  That he managed to lose anyway—the final, unalterable proof that the universe has a sense of humor—was the perfect denouement to this most Sisyphean of presidential odysseys.  He was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.

The truth is that McCain wouldn’t have won the 2008 election no matter what he did, and this had very little to do with him.  After eight years of George W. Bush—a member of McCain’s party, with approval ratings below 30 percent in his final months—the thrust of history was simply too strong for anyone but a Democrat to prevail that November.  (Since 1948, only once has the same party won three presidential elections in a row.)

If McCain was ever going to become president, it would’ve been in 2000.  Pre-9/11, pre-Iraq War and post-Bill Clinton, a colorful, self-righteous veteran could’ve wiped the floor with a stiff, boring policy wonk like Al Gore.

Why didn’t he get that chance?  The official explanation (as mentioned) is the reprehensible smear campaign Team Bush unloaded in the South Carolina primary.  However, the more complete answer is that Republican primary voters throughout the country simply didn’t view McCain as one of their own.  Compared to Bush—a born-again Christian with an unambiguously conservative record—McCain was a quasi-liberal apostate who called Jerry Falwell an “agent of intolerance” and seemed to hold a large chunk of the GOP base in bemused contempt.

McCain’s problem, in other words, was the primary system itself, in which only the most extreme and partisan among us actually participate, thereby disadvantaging candidates who—whether through their ideas or their character—might appeal to a wider, more ideologically diverse audience later on.  Recent casualties of this trend include the likes of John Kasich and John Huntsman on the right to John Edwards and (arguably) Bernie Sanders on the left.

On the other hand, sometimes primary voters will do precisely the opposite by selecting nominees whom they perceive to be the most “electable”—a strategy that, in recent decades, has produced an almost perfect record of failure, from John Kerry to Mitt Romney to Hillary Clinton.

By being his best self in 2000 and his worst self in 2008, McCain managed to fall into both traps and end up nowhere.  Indeed, he may well have been a victim of bad timing more than anything else—as was, say, Chris Christie by not running in 2012 or Hillary Clinton by not running in 2004.

Then again, all of history is based on contingencies, and it is the job of the shrewd politician to calibrate his strengths to the tenor of the moment without sacrificing his core identity.  However appealing he may be in a vacuum, he must be the right man at the right time—the one thing Barack Obama and Donald Trump had in common.

As Brian Wilson would say, maybe John McCain just wasn’t made for these times.  Maybe he wasn’t elected president because America didn’t want him to be president.  Maybe his purpose in life was to be exactly what he was:  A fiery renegade senator who drove everybody a little crazy and loved every minute of it.  Maybe he wouldn’t have been any good as commander-in-chief anyhow—too impulsive, too hawkish—and maybe we’re better off not knowing for sure.

Will someone of McCain’s ilk ever rise to the nation’s highest office in the future?  Wouldn’t it be nice if they did?

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A Nation of Hypocrites

“I watched the Super Bowl again this year.  Why?  ’Cause I’m an idiot.”

That was Lewis Black in 2001, and the sentiment has held up well in the intervening 17 years for both America and yours truly.

As a native New Englander, I haven’t fully invested myself in a professional sporting event since the 2007 World Series—the Red Sox’s second championship in four years—and haven’t given much of a damn about the Vince Lombardi Trophy since the Patriots effectively leased the thing at the beginning of the previous decade.  To coin a phrase:  I got tired of all the winning.

All the same, I have faithfully tuned in to every minute of every Super Bowl since discovering football in the late 1990s and will probably continue tuning in for the rest of my natural life.  To be sure, like every halfway-ethical American, I have been appalled by the NFL’s ongoing complicity in the epidemic of brain damage and suicide among current, former and (presumably) future players.  Intellectually, I know full well that by watching even one NFL game per year (my current average), I make myself complicit in this monstrous conspiracy and thereby become Part of the Problem.

Yet I watch the Big Game anyway, happily and without apology.  Why?  Easy:  Because I’m a hypocrite.

Yes, I suppose I could attempt to reconcile my shameful viewing habits by whipping up some half-baked rationalization—say, about how the NFL is finally taking the concussion issue seriously, or how supporting the Super Bowl is a way to support the economy and/or the troops.

But who am I kidding?  I relish the Super Bowl because I enjoy football and all manner of grand spectacle, and if the game’s continued existence shaves a few decades off the lives of its main participants, well, who ever thought running full speed into another human being was a risk-free endeavor in the first place?

 “The test of a first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  While there is nothing especially intelligent about watching professional football players pummel each other for three-and-a-half hours, the glaring contradiction of endorsing an activity you know to be despicable is perfectly emblematic of Donald Trump’s America—a culture in which no double standard is too flagrant and moral shamelessness knows no bounds.

In the age of Trump, hypocrisy is the new black.

That’s not to say that Donald Trump is necessarily to blame for this sorry state of affairs.  As with most other American flaws, the 45th president is less a cause than a symptom.  Trump may well be the single greatest hypocrite on planet Earth, but he is ultimately a mere reflection of the people who voted for him—and, equally, of those who didn’t.

Case in point:  While it’s true—as a cheeky Twitter parlor game has shown—that President Trump has said and done virtually everything he previously deplored in President Obama, who amongst us has not engaged in similarly disingenuous moral recalibrating during this abrupt shift in political leadership?

How many of us ding the president for his excessive golf habit but never gave it a second thought during the previous administration?  How many of us applaud congressional Democrats for refusing to compromise with Trump, despite spending eight years criticizing Republicans for refusing to compromise with Obama?  How many of us have condemned Trump’s history of philandering and sexual assault after excusing Bill Clinton’s for 20 years running?  How many of us were driven mad by the FBI’s investigation into Bill and Hillary’s business dealings but are delighted by its investigation into Donald’s?

Such is the corrosive effect of allowing raw political partisanship to inform one’s entire worldview—a fact Americans seem never to learn for more than a few minutes at a time.

The truth is that we are all guilty of practicing what we do not preach when it becomes convenient, and this goes far beyond party politics:  It’s also the smug environmentalists who luxuriate in 60 degree temperatures in December, or the self-proclaimed feminists who continue to patronize the work of sexually malignant artists and entrepreneurs.  It’s the health freaks who scarf burgers and brownies when no one’s looking, or the bleeding heart Robin Hoods who never seem to have spare change when they pass by a homeless person on the street.

Speaking as all of the above, I would never begrudge my fellow citizens the little duplicities that get them through their day.  When it comes to hypocrisy in 2018, the point isn’t to eradicate all of one’s moral inconsistencies.  Rather, it is to admit that those inconsistencies exist and not presume to be purer than one’s fellow man and woman.

Let him who is without hypocrisy cast the first stone.  Everyone else can watch the Super Bowl.

It’s Not Him, It’s Us

Donald Trump has resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for a year now—albeit on a strictly part-time basis—and for that reason, I am prepared to finally recognize him as president of these United States.

Like most liberals, I have struggled these past 12 months in truly accepting the legitimacy of the 2016 election—first, because of the ongoing intrigue vis-à-vis Russia, and second, because Donald Trump is a horrible human being who debases the presidency with every breath he takes.

And yet there he sits in the Oval Office and on Air Force One.  There his scratchy signature appears on every piece of legislation that flutters across his desk from Congress.  And there his portrait hangs on the wall of every federal building in America.

Thus, I can’t dance around it any longer:  Trump is my president whether I like it or not, and I regret to inform you, my fellow citizens, that he is your president as well, no matter how emphatically you may proclaim otherwise.

I make this simple and unpleasant point now in light of the two greatest lessons I’ve learned from the first year of the Trump era:  First, that nothing is more harmful to public discourse than the erosion of objective truth.  And second, that the survival of any nation depends on the health of its core institutions.

On the first point, it has become a matter of public record—most recently in the Washington Post—that Donald Trump is the most pathologically dishonest person to have ever occupied the White House, if not planet Earth.  Whether through cynicism or senility, Trump has demonstrated a near-superhuman capacity to exaggerate, distort or deny even the most trivial, Google-able details of his presidency and to dismiss any information he finds inconvenient as “fake news.”  By and large, his loyal minions have tagged along for the ride, bequeathing us a society in which the nature of reality itself has become a matter of personal opinion.

The question is:  If Trump skeptics insist—correctly—that facts are not subjective or open to debate, doesn’t that include the fact that Trump is lawfully commander-in-chief, vested with certain powers he can exercise as he sees fit?  Isn’t declaring him “not my president” or “Putin’s puppet” a mirror image of Republicans’ smearing of Barack Obama as a secret Kenyan whose 2008 election was predicated on a lie?  If it was offensive then, why wouldn’t it be offensive now?  If we demand acknowledgement of basic truths from our opponents, shouldn’t we also demand it from ourselves?

Yes, we absolutely should, and for most of the time since Trump’s inauguration last January, we have not held up our side of the bargain.  We have allowed our visceral, if justified, contempt for America’s 45th chief executive to overwhelm our ability to judge him fairly, or to afford him even a scintilla of institutional respect.  In so doing, we have become part of the problem.

The key word here is “institutional,” which brings us to the second takeaway of 2017: the importance of institutions in a stable, functioning democracy, up to and including such American mainstays as a free press, an independent judiciary and, yes, the presidency itself.  If Donald Trump has proved the single greatest threat to our country’s loftiest norms and ideals over the last year, the American people have not been that far behind in the running.  If Trump’s rotten character has led the United States deep into the moral gutter, the majority of his antagonists have been all too happy to follow, engaging him on his own ugly, puerile terms.

If that seems like an exaggeration, consider how many times the word “shithole” has been uttered in public forums in the two weeks since Trump uttered it at a White House immigration meeting—as if CNN shortening it to “s-hole” would’ve been too confusing to the average viewer.  Don’t get me wrong:  As someone who worships at the altar of George Carlin, I enjoy filthy language as much as anybody.  But if the word “shit” appears more than, say, three times in a single TV news segment, the story is no longer about Trump or immigration—it’s about how much fun it is for pundits to say “shit” and get away with it.

Life under Trump does not have to be this way, and we are not making America great by mimicking all of Trump’s worst instincts.  We recently celebrated the birthday of the man who said darkness cannot drive out darkness, yet we continue to behave as if the only way to drive out Trump is to be nearly as obnoxious as he is.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe the key to happy living is to treat people better than they deserve, and every now and again that includes the president (read: the presidency) of the United States.  Yes, of course Trump is an embarrassment and a disgrace who has no business in public life—let alone the Oval Office—but in the end this isn’t about him.  It’s about us.  It’s about not letting ourselves be dragged down to his level by surrendering to our lowest and most craven impulses.  It’s about retaining our core humanity even when it seems like all hope is lost.  It’s about that famous line from Cato—much beloved by George Washington during the Revolution— “Tis not in mortals to command success; but we’ll do more […] we’ll deserve it.”

Michelle Obama put it differently:  “When they go low…”

I forget how that line ended.

Rose’s Turn

If you’d asked me a week ago to list my 25 favorite Americans whom I haven’t personally met, Charlie Rose may well have been among them.  I have watched Rose’s eponymous PBS program regularly for the better part of a decade now, plowing through hundreds (if not thousands) of interviews with people from every imaginable walk of life—political leaders, filmmakers, musicians, authors, historians, scientists, businesspeople, fellow journalists—you name ’em, Charlie’s interviewed ’em—and I cannot conceive of my life as an active global citizen without having done so for so long.

In a media ecosystem that tends to value screaming over substance and certainty over wisdom, Rose has truly been a godsend, drawing out more knowledge and insight about the world around us than any other TV newsman in the last 25 years.  The Spartan set of his studio—a large round oak table surrounded by darkness—embodied the simple, unpretentious mission of Rose’s program:  To bring an understanding of a given issue to a wide audience through conversation between serious-minded individuals.  With the possible exception of C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb, he did this better than anybody in the business.

If you want a shorthand for how Rose comported himself in his job—and why it proved so darned engaging day in and day out—just imagine if Larry King had bothered to study up on his nightly guests more than ten minutes before the show began—and had he truly cared what they had to say once it did.

Like King, Rose was adept at the rare—and increasingly rarefied—art of allowing his guests to talk for extended periods without interruption and to take the conversation in any direction they chose.  Unlike King, Rose was unfailingly curious and well-read about whatever the topic at hand happened to be—indeed, he seldom if ever booked a guest to whom he showed indifference or dislike—and was equally in his element with Bashar al-Assad as he was with Amy Schumer.

Never content merely to plug some actor’s new movie or boost a rising senator’s presidential prospects, Rose always made his best effort to cut right to the heart of a question, probing his subjects about what truly drives them to do what they do:  What is it, precisely, that gets them out of bed in the morning?  What does success mean to them?  What have they learned from failure?  What makes them happy?  What, in short, is their own personal meaning of life?

Naturally, not everyone who came to Rose’s table was up to the challenge of having their souls plumbed for deeper meaning.  However, a great majority of them were—including many who tend to be reticent in other settings—and those interviews are treasures to behold, and are available for viewing in their entirety at CharlieRose.com, where I will continue to spend time on a fairly regular basis.

However, over the last week, a big fat asterisk has affixed itself to all that I have just written, following a devastating report in the Washington Post about Rose’s secret history of sexually abusing and intimidating at least eight different women in his employ—behavior that ranged from traipsing around hotel rooms in an open bathrobe to forcibly kissing and touching would-be romantic partners to angrily firing those who rejected his advances, potentially ending their careers as a result.

Indeed, from details in the Post story alone, Charlie Rose would seem to be the Harvey Weinstein of broadcast television—a perfect scumbag whose libido and sense of male entitlement are almost farcical in their reckless audacity.

Reading these women’s accounts in full—as I did when the story broke last Monday—felt very nearly like a personal betrayal.  Despite having never met the man, nor frankly known much about him beyond what he presented when the cameras were rolling, Rose had long struck me as a fundamentally decent and respectable elder statesman of news media—a true gentleman whom I could (and did) trust to present the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, about how the world really works—up to and including the problem of sexual assault in and out of the workplace.

That he, of all people, would turn out to be a Dirty Old Man who treats women as pure flesh and is so clueless about human nature that he had no idea of his predatory tendencies until he read about them in the Washington Post—well, it’s enough to make you wonder whether the Founding Fathers had it exactly backwards in granting full citizenship exclusively to landowning white men.  Whether, indeed, it might not be such a crazy idea to bar all men from positions of power until (to coin a phrase) we know what’s going on.

In any case, speaking as someone who can occasionally differentiate right from wrong, I understand why Charlie Rose will not—and should not—be allowed on television for a very long time, if ever, and that my continued viewing of old episodes of his show is, for the most part, indefensible.  For all the enjoyment his interviews have given me over the years—right up until last week, in fact—I accept that his fall from grace is a small price to pay for a society in which women’s job security and physical safety are not determined by the carnal urges of the men who sign their paychecks.

All the same, I cannot help but echo the reaction of Gayle King, Rose’s CBS This Morning co-host (along with Norah O’Donnell), who expressed an equal measure of disgust and sadness at the revelation that our boy Charlie is not the man we thought he was—that his periodic and rather creepy on-air flirting with female guests was a massive red flag that no one in authority was willing to see or do anything about.  As King explained to multiple outlets in the days after Rose was banished from CBS and PBS for good, one can be disgusted by behavior that is reprehensible and destructive while retaining a degree of affection for a person one has come to know and love and who, in his better moments, was undeniably charming and respectful to men and women alike.

The truth is that it is extraordinarily difficult to have your entire perception of another person negated in an instant and be able to adjust your loyalties accordingly.  As liberals are continually learning about Trump supporters—and as conservatives learned about many Obama voters before that—once you convince yourself of the inherent goodness of a given individual, it takes an awful lot of bad behavior on his or her part to alter your basic conclusion as to what kind of a person he or she truly is.  Once your initial opinion is established, confirmation bias kicks in and protects you from inconvenient information that might lead you to unattractive truths.

One solution to this conundrum is to be a lot more skeptical about your own assumptions, mindful of Mark Twain’s famous observation, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble:  It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Over the past year, there have been a great many things I knew for sure that were proved false by human events, not the least of which was the notion that a man who systematically—and openly—treats women horribly could never be elected president of the United States.  You’d think that fact alone would’ve steeled me against being surprised by anything ever again, and perhaps the truth about Charlie Rose will snap me out of my naïveté once and for all, just as the revelations about other celebrities have snapped other people out of theirs.

I just wish I could be more confident that I won’t be proved wrong about that, too.

Laughing Into the Abyss

I spent the balance of October 2016 burning through all five seasons of Breaking Bad, so when the election returns rolled in on the night of November 8—with Donald Trump unexpectedly winning one critical swing state after another—the image that kept flashing across my mind was of Walter White in the Season 4 episode “Crawl Space”:  Huddled beneath the floorboards of his house, with the feds closing in on his drug empire and his wife having burned through all their cash, Walter screams out in agony, his body writhing and twitching with helpless abandon at the realization that his entire life has been a house of cards.  And then, without warning, his cries suddenly turn to laughter—cackling, maniacal laughter—as it dawns on him, with complete and terrifying clarity, that he is solely to blame for every misfortune that has befallen him, and that he is now, at long last, getting exactly what he deserves.

Cognitively-speaking, that’s roughly where I was by 11 o’clock on Election Night 2016:  Disgusted and horrified that my beloved country had chosen a thuggish, hormonal con man to be its chief executive and custodian of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal—but also perversely amused by the whole thing.  As it became plain that the most supposedly-unthinkable event in human history had come to pass—a result so shocking and senseless that no one on TV or online seemed to possess the vocabulary to explain it—I couldn’t help but suspect that, in some dark, elemental way, Trump’s victory was a signal that America’s chickens were finally coming home to roost.

They say sometimes you have to laugh because otherwise you’d cry, but every now and again it becomes necessary to do both simultaneously.  One year ago today, I was doing exactly that.  In some ways, I’ve never really stopped.

Indeed, among the major lessons I learned from the events of last fall was how deeply comedy and tragedy can become intertwined in the course of human events.  We’re all familiar with the axiom, “Comedy is tragedy plus time,” but the truth is that some tragedies are funny right off the bat, and the rise of Trump was most definitely one of them.

Recall, if you will, how the entire world spent the whole of 2016 (and the second half of 2015) in total agreement about exactly one fact:  Donald Trump could never—and would never—be elected president of the United States.  Virtually every pundit, historian and so-called “expert” on planet Earth repeated this same conclusion over and over and over again—as, for good measure, did every opinion poll and, obliquely, Donald Trump himself.  We spent months on end reflecting, with sadness, on the national moral decay that had allowed such an execrable man to be nominated by a major political party in the first place, but—with few exceptions—we remained convinced, to the bitter end, that the American political process—so brilliantly and meticulously conceived by our founders—would ultimately prevent such an unqualified and embarrassing candidate to rise to the highest office in the land.

It was classical hubris on everyone’s part, and when Trump won, it was like a punch line to a joke of which all of us were the butt.  In our stubborn certainty that we lived in a country too intelligent, decent and progressive to be seduced by a confessed sexual predator who had bankrupted four casinos, we never really accepted the possibility that we were wrong—that there was a cancer on the American character that had metastasized from one end of the continent to the other.

Maybe this is just my long-simmering exasperation with the pundit-industrial complex run amok, but there was something acutely pleasurable in seeing every professional prognosticator being made to look like a complete idiot—to find out that, when push came to shove, nobody knew a goddamned thing about the country they were living in and the electorate they had spent the past year-and-a-half profiling.  (In the final hours of the campaign, the Huffington Post gave Clinton a 98 percent chance of victory.  Meanwhile, Nate Silver, having set Clinton’s odds closer to 65 percent, was excoriated by liberals for “putting his thumb on the scale” for Trump.)

Equally troubling—and equally funny—is how after a full year of experiencing President (and, before that, President-elect) Trump on a 24/7 basis, so many on the left are still in denial about the ways in which the laws of political gravity do not apply to America’s 45th commander-in-chief.  How Trump can get away with things that no previous public servant could, and how sooner or later we’ll need to accommodate this fact rather than assuming it will magically go away.

To my mind, the most profound takeaway from last year’s election—and all that has transpired since—is the power of shamelessness as a form of political statecraft.  Beginning with Mitch McConnell’s unprecedented, disgraceful move to block President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee nearly a year before Obama’s term was up, America’s majority party—and Trump in particular—has abandoned any residual semblance of honor and chivalry it might’ve had left and replaced it with an ethos that says, “If it can be done, it shall be done.”

And to quote perhaps the most insightful tweet of the last 12 months—with apologies to Michelle Obama—“When they go low, they win.”

Where previous presidents would be embarrassed (and politically damaged) by suggesting, say, that not all Nazis are bad people or that pregnant war widows are liars, this president has so radically lowered the bar as to how a commander-in-chief ought to behave—and has so wholly owned that behavior as the main selling point of his “brand,” never apologizing, never admitting error—he has effectively neutralized every critique one could possibly level about both his character and his leadership style.  As far as the American public is concerned, he is who he is—take him or leave him.

On November 8, 2016, we took him, and there is every reason to assume we’ll take him again in 2020.

Why?  Because, as it turns out, Americans have a very twisted sense of humor, and so long as the Dow Jones is above sea level and the world hasn’t descended into nuclear war, we will accept just about anybody in the driver’s seat of Air Force One.

And when things inevitably turn south?  When the next financial bubble bursts or a hot war erupts in the Korean Peninsula?  When Trump’s sexual assault victims come out of the woodwork or Robert Mueller starts knocking on the Oval Office door?

Well, that’s when the real fun will begin.

Missing Mitt

Here’s a question for all you liberals out there:  Would you have voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 if you knew it would’ve prevented the rise of Donald Trump in 2016?

This scenario is hardly an idle fantasy.  Romney was, in fact, 2012’s Republican nominee for president, and, for a time, he had a real shot of defeating Barack Obama in his pursuit of a second term.  Indeed, Romney spent most of October of that year either leading or tied in the polls—a fact long forgotten by history—and had he succeeded in becoming America’s 45th commander-in-chief, it stands to reason that a certain New York real estate developer would not have run against him four years down the road.

Certainly, the emerging conventional wisdom about Donald Trump is that he jumped into the 2016 race—and is now governing—as a direct (and plainly racist) reaction to a black man having run the country for the last eight years.  In effect, Obama’s Obama-ness is the greatest—and often only—determining factor in how Trump makes big decisions.

In the absence of a two-term black president—and in the presence of Romney, arguably the whitest man who’s ever lived—Trump would’ve had no immediate, burning incentive to toss his red “MAGA” hat into the ring—particularly not as a primary challenger to a sitting Republican president, a feat of audacity that even Ronald Reagan couldn’t pull off in 1976.

In short:  No Obama second term, no Trump.  So I ask again:  Is that a trade you’d be willing to make?

Having ruminated on this for some days, I do not yet have a definitive answer to that question, and I wouldn’t trust any liberal who claims he or she does.  We might agree that Obama was exceptional and Trump is an abomination, but we have yet to fully assimilate how completely—and ironically—the latter is a product of the former:  How, by twice electing President Obama, we were unwittingly planting the seeds of a backlash whose damage will be the work of generations to clean up.

Will it have been worth it in the end?  Is President Trump a fair price to pay for President Obama?  When we look back on this era many decades from now, will we conclude that the benefits of Obama’s administration outweighed the horrors of Trump’s?

At this highly tentative juncture, the answer for many Americans (including this one) is unambiguously “yes.”  As a longtime member of the LGBT club, my life is certainly more promising now than it was four (and eight) years ago—as, I would wager, are the lives of most other social and ethnic minorities whose rights Obama steadfastly defended, along with pretty much anyone who enjoys such amenities as affordable healthcare and breathable air.  Even setting aside the profound historical significance of a black family occupying the White House, the Obama presidency was a truly unique and productive epoch in our history—a veritable golden age of progressive policy initiatives—that every liberal in America should be proud to have voted into existence twice.

Against Obama’s undeniable record of accomplishment—despite the near-comical degree of opposition every step of the way—I have found myself grappling with perhaps the most surprising political revelation of the last four years:

Mitt Romney was not that bad of a guy, and probably wouldn’t have made that bad of a president.

Maybe that sounds crazy, but think about it:  A reasonably successful former governor and businessman.  An intellectual sophisticate with an expansive vocabulary and two Harvard degrees.  A devoted husband and father without a whiff of personal scandal.  And perhaps most essential of all, given the times:  An even-tempered, rational empiricist who does not need a great struggle to see what is directly in front of his nose.

Say what you want about Romney—Lord knows I have—but as president he would not spend an entire week feuding with the wife of a fallen soldier.  He would not sully decades of friendship with key American allies by lambasting them at campaign rallies and on official Oval Office phone calls.  Nor, under any circumstances, would he put in a nice word for Nazis and Klansmen, nor conjure childish nicknames for every senator he doesn’t like and every journalist who asks him a probing question.

He would never do any of those things, because, at the end of the day, Mitt Romney is a well-adjusted adult who believes in liberal democratic norms and understands that the job of the president is to lead—and to lead by example.

To be clear:  I have not forgotten Romney’s many faults, and I still believe my vote for Obama in 2012 was the right one, given what we knew at the time.  I remember Romney’s appalling “faith speech” in 2007, in which he denounced secularism as antithetical to American values, when of course the exact opposite is the case.  I remember when he vowed to double the inmate population at Guantanamo Bay rather than shut the whole rotten place down.  And I certainly remember his knack for reversing virtually every major policy position he’d ever taken—almost always in the wrong direction—thereby feeding the assumption that his thirst for power overwhelmed any notion of honor or personal integrity.

And yet—having said all that—I’ve twice watched Greg Whiteley’s 2014 documentary Mitt, which follows Romney through both of his presidential campaigns, and I’ve twice been taken aback by the sheer whimsy, civility and introspectiveness of this most peculiar American political character.  (“I think I’m a flawed candidate,” he says at one point, surrounded by his entire family.)

What’s more, when it became evident, by late 2015, that Donald Trump posed a clear and present danger to the moral authority of the United States, Romney rose to the occasion like few Republicans have, even to this day.  His speech of March 3, 2016—in which he gingerly called Trump “a phony [and] a fraud” who was “playing the members of the American public for suckers”—remains the most direct, lucid and amusing indictment of the now-president by any major political figure over the last two years.  (Despite Trump’s claims to superior intelligence, Romney quipped, “he is very, very not smart.”)

None of which is to say that a Romney presidency would’ve been a pleasant one for liberals to endure, and of course had he been elected in 2012—thus erasing Trump from the equation—we wouldn’t understand or appreciate how much trouble we’d saved ourselves four years into the future and beyond, what with the space-time continuum operating as it does.

In truth, we are still a long way from comprehending the nature of the beast America uncaged last November 8.  Being so early into Trump’s tenure, we do not yet know precisely how bad things will get—how deep into the barrel this White House is prepared to sink—and how long it’ll take to bind up the nation’s wounds when this nightmare is finally over.

My ongoing hope—somewhat borne out by history—is that the Trump era will be short, aberrational and ultimately washed away by future presidents.  After all, if Trump believes—with some justification—that he can reverse one signature Obama decision after another through executive action, there is little reason to doubt Trump’s Democratic successors can’t—and won’t—reverse all or most of his, particularly once the congressional balance of power shifts back in their favor.

Without question, there will be a lot more pain before we ever reach that point, and it’s probable that some of the rot that Trump’s behavior has wrought upon America’s body politic will prove, like Watergate, to be a permanent blot on the national character and the presidency itself.

Broadly-speaking, there is no silver lining to Donald Trump being president except for the fact that one day he won’t be.  And while humans do not yet possess the ability to go back in time to prevent Category 5 calamities like him, my little Romney thought experiment should serve as a reminder that public servants are not all created equal and that the best way to avoid a terrible presidential candidate in the future is to do everything in one’s power to elect someone else.

Dancing With the Devil

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

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

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

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

The media calls this “polarization.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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