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.

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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.

Darkness on the Edge of Town

On the evening of November 5, 1980, a 31-year-old rock ‘n’ roller in a sweaty white shirt stood at a microphone in Tempe, Arizona, and ominously intoned to a crowd of thousands, “I don’t know what you guys think about what happened last night, but I think it’s pretty frightening.”

With that, he launched into one of his signature fist-pounding anthems, whose opening lines declare:

Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland

Got a head-on collision smashin’ in my guts, man

I’m caught in a crossfire that I don’t understand

The man on the stage was Bruce Springsteen, and the previous day’s “what happened” was the election of Ronald Reagan as the 40th president of the United States.  The song, “Badlands,” was written and recorded two years prior, but its driving rhythm section and portentous lyrics seemed to capture the national mood as no other track could—at least among the American left.  It was as though Bruce had been saving it up for just the right moment.  As it turned out, the dawn of Reaganism was it.

Indeed, the prince of the Jersey Shore would spend the balance of the ensuing decade fortifying his reputation as an apostle of blue-collar America—the embodiment of the desperate, unwashed workingmen who felt betrayed and abandoned by their country and government in favor of the upper 1 percent.  In this milieu, the Reagan administration, with its tax-cutting, “trickle-down” economics, would, in short order, become Enemy No. 1.

From that concert in Tempe onward, Springsteen’s whole musical identity assumed a more political bent, his songs coming to reflect the times as much as the dreams and inner torment of the artist himself.  Where Bruce’s earlier work breezily spoke of young love on the boardwalk and hemi-powered drones screaming down the boulevard, by 1978 he was already losing faith in the institutions that had raised him—the government, the social compact, his family—and increasingly threaded this perceived societal drift into otherwise personal tales of love, hatred, anxiety and midnight drag racing.  (A typical lyric from that time:  “You’re born with nothing / and better off that way / soon as you’ve got something they send / someone to try and take it away.”)

Because this heightened social awareness and unease coincided with the Reagan Revolution—and also because of his open advocacy for such people as John Kerry, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—Springsteen has long (and rightly) been associated with the Democratic Party and its base.  So it came as something of a shock for me when I recently re-listened—for, say, the dozenth time—to Springsteen’s 1982 album, Nebraska, and found that, song-for-song—in some cases, like-for-line—the record seemed to speak directly to the plight of the prototypical Trump voter in 2016.  Contained in those tracks—and, by implication, in the mind of the man who wrote them—are most (if not all) of the fears, disappointments and anger that drove millions of bitter, hardworking citizens—many of whom voted for Obama twice—to turn to Donald Trump as the last best hope to save the soul of their beloved, beleaguered country.  In many ways, Springsteen’s Nebraska—35 years old in September—serves as their voice.

You could begin with the album’s title track, which recounts the (true) story of a Bonnie and Clyde-like duo who senselessly murdered their way across the Midwest in the 1950s, only to conclude, “They wanted to know why I did what I did / well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”  Immediately following is “Atlantic City”—a concert staple to this day—whose protagonist bemoans, “I got a job and tried to put my money away / but I got debts that no honest man can pay.”  Worse still, in “Johnny 99,” we learn, “They closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late that month / Ralph went out lookin’ for a job / but he couldn’t find none.”  And so forth.

What is most consistent, and ominous, in these tracks—today and in their original context—is how inexorably the weight of economic despair eventuates in violence.  Along with the aimless, homicidal couple in the opener (“Me and her went for a ride, sir / and ten innocent people died”), the man in “Atlantic City” is forced to join the mob to make ends meet (“Last night I met this guy / and I’m gonna do a little favor for him”), while Ralph, aka Johnny 99, knocks off a town clerk in a drunken rage, later pleading to a judge, “The bank was holdin’ my mortgage / and they were gonna take my house away / Now I ain’t sayin’ that makes me an innocent man / But it was more ‘n all this that put that gun in my hand.”

Indeed, experience teaches us that certain acts of violence spring purely from desperation, hunger and a general lack of good options in life, and the ordeal of the 2016 election did little to disabuse us of this notion.

To wit:  It is a matter of public record that the core of Donald Trump’s minions viewed themselves (rightly or wrongly) as the most economically stretched class of people in a generation—folks without jobs, prospects or any real political power—and that Trump’s campaign, in turn, was the most physically intimidating in modern times, with scores of campaign rallies descending into fist fights, the aggressors egged on by the candidate himself, who bellowed, “If you see somebody with a tomato, knock the crap out of them,” adding, “I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.”  (He didn’t, of course.)

Certainly nothing good can come from lashing out at your own society in such an ugly way.  Yet Nebraska does not look down on its characters when they commit despicable acts.  Bleak as it is, the album is fundamentally an exercise in empathy for those whose circumstances have led them to feel that a life of crime is the only choice they have left.  In their shoes, are we so sure that we wouldn’t behave the same way?

Encouragingly, perhaps, Springsteen himself has not changed his view on this one whit.  In an interview with Rolling Stone last October—during which he couldn’t summon a single positive word for the president-to-be—he posited, “I believe there’s a price being paid for not addressing the real cost of the deindustrialization and globalization that has occurred in the United States for the past 35, 40 years, and how it’s deeply affected people’s lives and deeply hurt people to where they want someone who says they have a solution.  And Trump’s thing is simple answers to very complex problems. […] And that can be very appealing.”  Asked if he is “surprised” to learn that the man who inspired his 1995 song “Youngstown”—an elegy to the American steel industry—is now a Trump supporter, Bruce responded, “Not really.”

Trump, he seems to agree, is what David Brooks once characterized as “the wrong answer to the right question.”

Which is all to say that Springsteen understood the American electorate in 2016 better than the Democratic Party—as, in their own way, did the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—and that unless the party makes a more honest reckoning with its relationship to America’s basket of deplorables, it will be quite some time before Democrats win back the House, the Senate, the presidency and the Supreme Court.

If you’ve lost Springsteen, you’ve lost America.

The Man in the Tinfoil Hat

Correct me if I’m wrong, but is it possible that Donald Trump has been president for a full 61 days and not once claimed that 9/11 was an inside job?

I’ve scoured the internet for possible examples of such a statement from the sitting commander-in-chief, and so far, I’ve come up with nothing.  (For our purposes, we will discount this interview, since it was given on 9/11 itself, before anyone knew anything.)  As it turns out, in the decade-and-a-half since the worst terrorist attack on American soil, Trump has been totally, weirdly consistent in his view that the World Trade Center was brought down by Osama bin Laden and his minions in al Qaeda—and not, say, by a controlled explosion orchestrated by George W. Bush.  As far as our dear leader is concerned, the basic facts of 9/11 are settled science and not worth questioning further.

In light of all the nonsense that this administration has forced us to confront on a daily—if not hourly—basis, let us take a moment to appreciate the grace and maturity exhibited by the 45th president, vis-à-vis September 11, in accepting incontrovertible evidence as objective truth when there are other options open to him.

After all, this is the same guy who glanced at the cover of National Enquirer and proclaimed that Ted Cruz’s father was an accomplice in the Kennedy assassination.  The guy who propagated the theory that millions of non-citizens committed voter fraud because a German golfer told him so.  The guy who pushed hard for birtherism based on sources he never named, and who just recently accused President Obama of illegally wiretapping him based on documentation he has never produced.  And on and on and on.

Given all of this irresponsible rumor-mongering—this obsessive-compulsive embrace of political fairy tales when empirical facts are readily available—we are left to wonder:  Why isn’t Trump a 9/11 truther?  If he can so easily be made to believe that Obama could surreptitiously “tapp” the phones at Trump Tower, what’s stopping him from buying into a Bush administration that could surreptitiously blow up the World Trade Center to justify a war in Iraq?  As the leader of the free world, shouldn’t he be chomping at the bit to expose the would-be greatest crime of his least favorite Republican president once and for all?

You’d think he would be, and if Trump’s rank gullibility and ignorance aren’t sufficient reasons for him to be suspicious, surely his ongoing association with avowed 9/11 truthers would eventually do the job.

That’s right:  At this very moment, there are bona fide 9/11 skeptics within the president’s inner circle.  No, not his chief of staff or secretary of state—I’m talking about people he actually listens to and whose ideas he regularly repeats.  People like Alex Jones—aka the poor man’s Rush Limbaugh—who uses his radio program to scream about how the Sandy Hook massacre was fake and the government is using chemicals to turn frogs gay.  (Google it, kids!)  Or people like Andrew Napolitano, the Fox News contributor who originated this week’s bizarre claim that the (fictional) wiretaps in Trump Tower were the work of British spies.

These men are cooks, yet Trump’s ear seems to hang on their every word.  The president has come to view their hysterical ravings as gospel, thereby nudging paranoid gobbledygook into mainstream political culture.

We already know how pointlessly disruptive the presence of conspiracy theories can be on the daily operations of the U.S. government.  As we speak, actual intelligence officials are being paid actual wages to “investigate” something the president tweeted several weeks back at 3:35 a.m.  Two days ago, the director of the FBI was compelled to discuss those investigations in front of a congressional committee, all of whose members—like every other person in America—already knew those tweets were BS and hardly needed James Comey to confirm it.

The question now isn’t whether anything substantive will be gleaned from these mad accusations.  (It won’t.)  Rather, the question is how Trump will react to being proved a liar in half a dozen different ways.  If his past behavior is any indication—and it always is—he will continue insisting upon the rightness of his wrongness right up until every member of his administration abandons him, at which point he will sheepishly concede that no wiretap took place, quickly adding that he’s proud to have stubbornly suggested otherwise, since the ensuing investigation was the only way for us to know for sure that President Obama isn’t a criminal.  (As you’ll recall, this was roughly how he handled being humiliated about Obama’s birth certificate in 2011.)

However this particular national embarrassment is resolved, we can take it as a moral certainty that life under Trump will only get dumber from here, and you can take it from me that the longer he remains president, the greater the odds are that he will openly question 9/11.

Remember:  Trump’s solution to any big scandal is to create an even bigger scandal, and at the current rate his presidency is unraveling, it won’t be long before he burns through every other shiny object in his playbook and all that’s left is the Hail Mary.  Yes, the pushback will be fierce, and yes, the calls for his resignation will reach a veritable fever pitch.  But what would that matter to a man who believes he can generate his own reality and dismiss all opponents as the instruments of “fake news”?

In other words, the nation is currently engaged in a staring contest with someone who has no eyelids.  For all the unpredictability baked into our 45th president, we can be absolutely sure that a man who has skirted personal responsibility for the first 70 years of his life is not going to change course by the time he turns 71.  As Newton might’ve said, a president under a delusion will remain that way unless acted upon by a majority of the House and two-thirds of the Senate.

The Greatest

If I could ask President Obama exactly one question—and if he were forced to answer it honestly—it would be, “How did you really feel about gay marriage between 1996 and 2012?”

See, in 1996, when the future commander-in-chief was running for the Illinois State Senate, he responded to a questionnaire from a Chicago LGBT newspaper by writing, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.”

Sixteen years later, sitting in the most powerful office on planet Earth, Obama said to ABC’s Robin Roberts, “It is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

There you had it:  Two totally consistent positions on an explosive social issue from a brave political leader acting on principle.

There was only one problem:  For the entire 16-year period in between those two statements, Obama was staunchly and unambiguously opposed to same-sex marriage whenever he was asked about it—not least during his 2004 Senate campaign and his initial run for president—explaining that his Christian faith dictates that marriage is an institution between one man and one woman.

Indeed, for a solid eight years or so, Obama’s public stance on gay marriage was more regressive than Dick Cheney’s.

Among many LGBT folk, there was always the suspicion that, until 2012, Obama was never quite on the level about what his true feelings on this subject were.  Because he was such a proud liberal on so many other domestic matters, because he cared so deeply about civil rights for all citizens—because he was just so goddamned smart!—we assumed his public opposition to equal marriage rights (while supporting civil unions) was an act of ideological hedging by an ambitious, savvy political tactician.  If he believed in marriage equality in his heart (as his response to that questionnaire suggested), he was not prepared to gamble his political future on it until a majority of the public agreed with him—as it finally did by the end of his first term.

Here, in other words, was a classic example of President Obama “leading from behind”—an executive style that sometimes comes across as not leading at all.

Now, I realize—on this final full day of Obama’s presidency—that to dwell on the inner workings of the man’s soul rather than on the impact of his policies is to risk missing the forest for the trees.  All things considered—regardless of when he officially and wholeheartedly got on board—Obama has been the greatest thing to happen to the LGBT community in the entire history of the world.

It now seems like a lifetime ago, but don’t forget that when Obama was sworn in on January 20, 2009, same-sex marriage was legal in exactly two states, Massachusetts and Connecticut, and thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act, even those unions were not recognized on the federal level.  Meanwhile, gay citizens could not serve openly in the Armed Forces, HIV-positive foreigners could not travel to the United States at all, workplace anti-discrimination measures for LGBT people were largely a joke, and the notion of gender-neutral bathrooms was scarcely a twinkle in anybody’s eye.

Fast-forward eight years, and you realize that we now live in an entirely different country from the one George W. Bush left us with.  Complain all you want about feet-dragging and unfinished business—believe me, you’ll find plenty of material to work with—but there is no denying that President Obama’s reign has been a golden age for LGBT rights unparalleled in human history.  Indeed, it would not be much of a stretch to conclude that our 44th president has provided more hope and protection to his gay countrymen than our first 43 presidents put together.

Not that he accomplished all (or any) of this by himself.  Apart from signing an executive order every now and again (itself no small thing), all the major breakthroughs on this front—the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, passage of the Hate Crimes Protection Act, Obergefell v. Hodges, and so forth—were the culmination of years, if not decades, of grunt work by untold scores of activists, writers and other ordinary people in pursuit of an impossible dream.  Many of those folks didn’t live to enjoy the fruits of their labor, but their impact on subsequent generations is profound beyond measure.

In truth, Obama’s primary role in effecting a more gay-friendly America was his stepping back and simply allowing it to happen.  Rather than constantly getting in the middle of things—no doubt out of fear that it could backfire—he made a habit of steadily—even stealthily—setting the tone and laying the legal groundwork whereby the barriers to a more just society could be toppled without any resistance at the top.  (The Justice Department refusing to enforce DOMA in 2011 was a classic, crucial example of this.)  Notwithstanding his opposition to marriage rights until 2012, the president made clear his desire to be an LGBT ally from the very beginning.  In the long run, his actions spoke for themselves.

To be sure, there was a great deal of luck in his occupying the Oval Office at the exact moment when defending gay rights suddenly became cool, and we cannot overlook the multitude of cosmic coincidences that conspired to make Obama such a godsend for the gay movement, independent of how much (or how little) it might’ve interested him otherwise.

That said, it is very difficult to imagine the United States having progressed this far under a President John McCain or a President Mitt Romney—two men who didn’t give a damn about gay people and wouldn’t have lifted a finger to make their lives better.  To note the confluence of Obama’s rise with the wide acceptance of the dignity of LGBT people may be historically correct, but it also shortchanges the monumental import of Obama’s efforts to nudge the country, ever-so-slowly, in the right direction.

I’m sure I will never have the opportunity to ask Obama my original question face-to-face—namely, what did he really think and when did he really think it?

Then again, perhaps I will.  Not to brag, but I did briefly meet him once before.

In the fall of 2007, the then-senator and presidential candidate gave a characteristically rousing speech near the Parkman Bandstand in Boston Common at dusk.  There were hundreds of spectators, but I arrived early and found a spot right in front, leaned up against the metal fence dividing the audience from the candidate.  After he spoke, he glided along the throng of cheering admirers, shaking the hands of everyone within reach, including me.  I don’t recall if our eyes met, but I appreciated the chance to physically connect with a man who, at that time, was considered by most liberals as more-or-less the second coming of Christ.

I didn’t completely buy into the hype myself.  First of all, he was then trailing Hillary Clinton by 20 points in the polls and couldn’t possibly secure the Democratic nomination.  And second, even in the innocent days of 2007, I knew better than to expect that any president, no matter how brilliant or charismatic, could solve all the problems in the world with a mere flick of his hand.  (While Obama himself never claimed the job would be that easy, his most devoted fans certainly got that impression.)

With this in mind, it was all I could do that evening to shout the words “good luck” in his general direction as he let go of my hand and continued on.  I admired the hell out of him, but I knew he would never actually become commander-in-chief.  After eight embarrassing years of George W. Bush, what right did we Americans have to be led by someone so dazzling, so worldly, so intelligent, and so…normal?

We didn’t deserve him, yet in the end we elected him twice.  He was the president we needed, and only in retrospect will we fully understand just how lucky we’ve been since January 20, 2009.  We may never see the likes of him ever again, but then the miracle is that we got him once.  All we can do now is be grateful.