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.

Inherent Vice

Christopher Hitchens used to say there isn’t a more unforgivable sin than being boring.  (And, accordingly, no more miserable human experience than being bored.)  However, in spending the final decade of his life engaged in high-spirited debates over such disparate subjects as the Iraq War and the (non-)existence of God, Hitchens conceded that to be passionately engaged on one side of a contentious issue requires making the same arguments over and over and over again.  What could be more boring than that?

I mention this because we Americans are about to inaugurate as commander-in-chief a man against whom we have spoken and written so extensively over the last year-and-a-half that we seem to have already run out of new ideas and are now simply repeating ourselves (and each other), effectively boring ourselves to death.

And who could possibly blame us?  When you get right down to it, how many different ways are there to call someone a selfish, narcissistic, vulgar charlatan who knows nothing about statecraft and cares even less?  When that same man takes to Twitter to bitch about the latest celebrity who refused to kneel at his feet, what recourse do we have but to use the same belittling terms to characterize just how thin-skinned and small-minded such behavior makes this 70-year-old infant appear to the wider world?

This is not to say that we have President-elect Voldemort entirely figured out just yet.  By his own admission, he places great stock in being unpredictable—to friends and enemies alike—which makes compiling a full psychological profile of him very nearly impossible.  (How fitting that the verb “gaslight” has enjoyed a resurgence in the American vernacular as of late.)

However, what we do know for sure about our next president—none of which is promising—is enough to keep us invigorated well into the first hundred days of his administration—if not the first thousand—and we have no choice but to reassert them ad nauseam until we are given a reason to think otherwise.  When it comes to opposing Trump, there is no choice but to be boring.

To be clear:  I don’t mean that we should spend the dude’s entire presidency hurling childish insults at him the way he does at others—enjoyable as that might be.

What we need—particularly in these tense early moments—is to establish the truths about Agent Orange that are ingrained in his very DNA—and thus destined to remain the same—while separating out our collective impressions of him that, in the fullness of time, may well be proved false, exaggerated or unimportant.  We cannot get bogged down in ancillary minutiae.  As Joseph Ellis whimsically put it, “There’s something called the forest, and then there’s something called the trees.”

As far as I’m concerned, there is one fact about Donald Trump that overrides everything else:  Insomuch as he values anything at all in this world, it is the furthered personal enrichment of Donald Trump, full stop.  In the end, the 45th president cares about nothing but himself and calibrates his every action based on what he believes is in his own best interest, and nothing more.

This may seem like an obvious point—which, of course, it is—but if we take the next step and accept it as the singular insight that explains everything worth knowing about this strange person—the who, the what, the why and the how—we could save ourselves a great deal of puzzlement and needless psychoanalyzing down the road, and perhaps even be able to anticipate future events with more accuracy than if we merely assumed the worst at every turn.

It’s a question of motivation:  How does a man who is capable of doing anything decide to do something in particular?  Having licensed himself to violate every civic norm in the book, what are the ultimate ends that he intends to achieve with his newfound political power?  And if he truly has no coherent plan—if this whole crusade really was just an idle ego trip that got out of hand—what inner forces are going to guide his decision-making once he actually sits in the Oval Office chair?

It’s not the white supremacy.  Surely, if his poll numbers among African-Americans miraculously shot through the roof, he would embrace (read: exploit) that support before the sun came up the next morning.

Nor is it the authoritarian need to control all levers of power at all times.  If the press swooned over him the way it has often swooned over President Obama, he would gladly defer to journalists’ right to do their jobs and would likely hold a press conference on an almost hourly basis.  (He may well do the latter in any case.)

Nor, certainly, is it any particular fealty to conservatism, isolationism or any other halfway-coherent view of the world that he has occasionally dabbled in but plainly knows nor cares nothing about.  Here, as with everything else, he has shown a profound, aggressive willingness to reverse any policy position on a moment’s notice—often, for good measure, denying such a change ever occurred—leading us to conclude that most, if not all, of his political views are affectations, as phony as they are ephemeral.

All of which might be tolerable were Trump to possess a scintilla of concern for the public good—if he could tailor his policies based on what would yield the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

But he doesn’t and he can’t.  Practically since birth, he has occupied a position in society whereby status and wealth are the only things worth attaining.  Like a slimier version of Henry Hill in GoodFellas, Trump exists in a milieu that views poverty as a failure of imagination and modesty as a form of psychosis.  To him, there is nothing more contemptible than a morally upstanding citizen who doesn’t give a damn about money or fame.  Just look at how many of those sorts of folks he has insulted in the course of his life.

There is no reconciling this obsession with personal enrichment with the interests of the nation at large.  Hence my view that Trump’s rank greed and selfishness will be the “rosebud” to his presidency:  They are the only constant in his 70 miserable years on Earth, and if you want to know what he’s going to do today, ask yourself what he stands to gain tomorrow.

Love the Bubble

There’s an old story that when Richard Nixon was re-elected president in 1972 by a score of 49 states to one, the legendary New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael remarked, “How could Nixon possibly have won?  Nobody I know voted for him!”

In truth, Kael said nothing of the sort.  Or rather, she said the exact opposite of the above, but because life is one long game of telephone, over time her words have been misinterpreted to within an inch of their life, so that now she comes off as an oblivious, left-wing stooge.  Oh well:  When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

All the same, those exact words have been bouncing around my head a lot these days, following the even more inexplicable election of an even more inappropriate candidate to that very same high office.  If the gist of Kael’s (fictional) lament is that Americans are so ideologically tribal that we’ve essentially walled ourselves off from those with whom we disagree, I’ve certainly done my part to make matters worse.

Indeed, months before Donald Trump became America’s president-elect, I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that, so far as I could tell, not a single person I’ve ever known was prepared to cast a vote for him.  Nor, for that matter, was any writer, elected official or celebrity in my intellectual orbit for whom I hold even a modicum of respect—including many conservatives who would normally support the Republican candidate as reflexively as I would support the Democrat.

Is this because, like Pauline Kael, I live inside an elitist, left-wing bubble and spent the entirety of 2016 subconsciously avoiding any views I would rather not hear?  Probably.

Is it also because Donald Trump was the most unserious and morally repugnant presidential candidate in a century, and therefore liable to turn off virtually any honest person who knows a vulgar charlatan when they see one?  Once again:  All signs point to yes.

Because those two things are equally true—not one more than the other—I’ve had real trouble feeling guilty about contributing to America’s increasing divide between Team Red and Team Blue.  I don’t doubt that if I put in more effort to reach out to folks in the heartland and elsewhere who do not share my values, I would likely emerge a fuller, more empathetic human being.  But there is no amount of ideological ecumenicalism that could negate all the terrible things Trump has said and that innumerable supporters of his have done:  He and they are as contemptible today as they’ve ever been—if not worse—and I have no desire to treat their particular views on race, religion and gender as if they are deserving of my respect.

Remember:  One’s politics are not some ingrained, immovable phenomenon like ethnicity or sexual orientation.  They are a choice.  They reflect how you think—as opposed to who you are—and that makes them fair game for the condemnation of others.

Which brings us—improbably enough—to Meryl Streep.

At Sunday’s Golden Globes, Streep chose to accept the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award by expressing her revulsion toward the president-elect and all that he represents—specifically, his disdain for multiculturalism and a free press, as well as his pathological inability to ever behave like a mature, compassionate adult.  Predictably, the crowd inside the Beverly Hilton went wild, while right-wingers online condemned Streep as an arrogant liberal nut.  And so it goes.

From a close reading of Streep’s remarks, we find that—apart from an unfair crack about mixed martial arts—she didn’t make a single statement that any decent person could possibly disagree with.  Every factual assertion was objectively correct (e.g., Trump is a bully, Hollywood actors have geographically diverse backgrounds), while every value judgment was so basic and obvious that a kindergartner could understand it (e.g., “disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence”).

Substantively, there was absolutely nothing controversial in Streep’s comments.  The uproar, then, was entirely a function of Streep’s status as Hollywood royalty—and, thus, a spokeswoman for the cultural left—which led those on the right to denounce her purely out of partisan vindictiveness, just the way congressional Republicans have opposed much of what President Obama has said because he said them.

That, my friends, is the real danger of living in a bubble:  Your ideological bias can become so overpowering that you decide, in advance, that those in the other bubble could never possibly say something true.  And that is the moment at which all good governance—nay, all good citizenship—ends.

I, for one, am entirely comfortable with the fact that, during the next four years, Donald Trump will occasionally say and do things of which I completely approve.  When that happens, I hope I will have the decency and integrity to say so.  All I ask in return is for everyone else—no matter which bubble they call home—to meet me halfway.

Best Pictures

By my count, I experienced roughly three dozen new movies in the year 2016.  While that qualifies as a personal best, it’s also maybe 15 percent of a full-time critic’s annual diet.  So it’s possible I missed something good along the way.

In any case, the following films were—and are—very much worth two (or, in one case, eight) hours of your time, assuming your brain operates on the same emotional wavelength as mine.  I highlighted my top four early last week.  I include them here, as well, because they bear repeating.

MOONLIGHT

A man, a woman and a young boy sit around a dining room table.  The boy says, “My name’s Chiron.  But people call me Little.”  The man smiles, thrilled that the kid has finally opened his mouth, and responds, “OK, Little.”  The woman, not smiling, interjects, “I’m gonna call you by your name, Chiron.”  She understands the importance of not allowing others define who you really are.  It will take Chiron another 20 years to figure that out for himself.

O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA

When O.J. Simpson was found not guilty for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman in the fall of 1995, a poll found that 73 percent of white people believed Simpson had committed the crimes, while only 27 percent of black people believed the same.  Ezra Edelman’s five-part documentary traces the source of this profound disagreement as far back as the Watts Riots of 1965.  One could just as plausibly argue the O.J. verdict was forged aboard the first slave ship bound for Virginia in 1619.

ELLE

George Carlin once got on a stage and asked if rape can ever be made funny.  His answer—broadly speaking—was that anything can be fodder for laughs if approached from the right angle, and Elle seems content to proceed from this same premise.  Not that director Paul Verhoeven and actress Isabelle Huppert are making light of sexual assault, per se, so much as suggesting that a rape victim can spin a traumatic experience to her advantage if she plays her cards right, and that this can make her heroic and villainous at the same time.  Coming soon to a women’s studies course near you.

KRISHA

The feature-length debut of director Trey Edward Shults, adapted from his autobiographical short film of the same name, starring members of his own family playing versions of themselves (or each other).  All of which helps to explain the intense, eerie way this sketch of a Thanksgiving dinner gone awry crawls under your skin and overwhelms your senses, as the family’s titular black sheep teeters on the edge of the abyss while trying as hard as she can to claw her way back to solid ground.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

A portrait of three lonely people in parallel states of grief:  The man who committed a sin that dare not speak its name, the woman who can neither fully blame nor fully forgive him for it, and their teenage nephew whose sarcastic, stoical reaction to his father’s death is the glue that oh-so-precariously holds everyone else together.  A story to make you sad in a year when most of us struggled to feel anything else.

THE HANDMAIDEN

From Park Chan-Wook—the Korean wild man who gave the world Oldboy—emerges this ravishing and progressively convoluted adaptation of Sarah Waters’s novel Fingersmith, about a petty thief hired to cheat an heiress out of her inheritance by becoming her trusted maid.  Simple enough, until the two women fall madly (and unexpectedly) in love, generating complications that neither of them is quite prepared to deal with.  Come for the palace intrigue; stay for the twist ending and hardcore lesbian sex.

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

Hailee Steinfeld at her spunky best as a high school outcast slapped with a double betrayal when her older brother hooks up with her best (and only) friend—a crushing development that leaves her smartass history teacher (Woody Harrelson) as her sole, unhelpful confidant.  That is, until she embarks upon a relationship of her own by way of the most spectacular text message in the history of smart phones.  Remember, kids:  Think before you send.

EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!

In his 25 years as a writer-director, Richard Linklater has never shown a more profound indifference to plot than in this so-called “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused.  A weekend-in-the-life of a Freaks and Geeks-like gang of college baseball players in the final days before classes start—a period during which they do little more than philosophize, party and not get laid—Linklater’s follow-up to Boyhood is his most laid-back movie to date and—perhaps for that reason—his most enjoyable.

FENCES

Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in a play by August Wilson—need we say more?  Washington is a former Negro League star who has turned into a drunk, proud, embittered garbage man, while Davis is the generous, strong-willed, tactful housewife who has suppressed a lifetime of frustrations that may or may not ever see the light of day.  Both actors won a Tony Award playing the same roles on Broadway in 2010.  Seems only fair to give each of them an Oscar as well.

EYE IN THE SKY

Barack Obama has been the most ruthless terrorist-killer in the history of U.S. presidents.  However, most Americans do not appreciate this fact due to Obama’s preferred method of execution:  drone strikes.  This British production—featuring Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman, among others—explores the deep moral conundrums involved in bombing Muslim extremists from the sky—particularly if there’s a little girl just a few hundred feet from the target who’d have only a 75 percent chance of surviving such a blast.

ARRIVAL

Roger Ebert used to wonder why movie aliens are so hell-bent on destroying all life on Earth:  Why go to the trouble of crossing half the galaxy just to burn everything down when you get here?  Denis Villeneuve’s film, starring Amy Adams, respects the majesty of space travel—and the audience’s intelligence—by presenting a story of a close encounter that assumes both sides might want to actually learn something from each other, rather than just blowing each other up and declaring cosmic victory.

HELL OR HIGH WATER

I’m not sure there was a funnier moment at the cinema this year than when Texas Ranger Jeff Bridges and his partner sat down for lunch at a low-rent steakhouse somewhere in West Texas and were informed by their surly octogenarian waitress, “I’ve been working here for 44 years.  Ain’t nobody ever ordered nothing but T-bone steak and a baked potato.  Except this one asshole from New York tried to order trout back in 1987.  We don’t sell no goddamned trout.”  And then her face when Bridges’s partner tries to order his steak medium well.

LA LA LAND

Damien Chazelle’s third film is, in certain ways, a companion piece to his second, Whiplash.  After all, both are soaked in an unapologetically romantic longing for classical jazz and a bygone era in which America’s singular musical invention still reigned supreme.  The two films are also both about the obsessive need to prove your mettle to anyone who might doubt you or stand in your way, as well as the enormous interpersonal costs of seeking eternal greatness.  You’ve got to hand it to Chazelle:  He sure knows how to stage a wild finish.

13TH

Ava DuVernay’s infuriating documentary about our country’s prison-industrial complex reveals the most essential hidden truth about America:  Slavery did not end in 1865 so much as assume a slightly more roundabout—but no less sinister—visage.  Stipulating that involuntary servitude would cease to exist “except as a punishment for crime,” the 13th Amendment inadvertently (or not) ensured that so long as the legal system could be manipulated in just the right way, African-Americans would continue to be systemically subjugated and dehumanized for as long as their white countrymen allowed themselves to get away with it.  As we still do to this day.

HAIL, CAESAR!

After Jeff Bridges and the T-bone, the biggest laugh of 2016 involved a singing cowboy—played by 26-year-old Alden Ehrenreich—being shoehorned into a stuffy costume drama by a foppish Ralph Fiennes, who exhausts every atom of his patience to get the kid to nail his line reading, “Would that it were so simple.”  Because this is a Coen Brothers movie, the punch line doesn’t arrive for another hour or so and, when it does, it somehow involves Frances McDormand being nearly strangled to death by her own neckerchief.  It’s complicated.

Appeasement

What would you do if you met Donald Trump face-to-face?

I realize such an encounter is unlikely for us mere mortals.  As politicians go, Trump is unusually reticent about close interactions with the public and—being a legendary germaphobe—generally avoids all physical human contact whenever possible.

All the same, the Donald is about to become (or should I say “remain”?) the most ubiquitous person on planet Earth, and thus bound to mingle with some of his 320 million constituents every now and again over the next four-to-eight years.

So it’s worth asking ourselves how we would react if he actually came to our hometown and we were given the chance to speak with him one-on-one.  How would we handle him in the flesh, as opposed to when he’s just an image on a screen?

This is no mere rhetorical question.  At this moment, Trump is arguably the most hated man in America.  For at least 50 percent of the country, he is little more than a disgusting, morally bankrupt buffoon who ought to be walled off from all government buildings—and from all small children—and is deserving of neither our attention nor our respect.

And yet, beginning on January 20, he will be the custodian of the most powerful and indispensable office in the Western world.  The presidency of the United States is the centerpiece of the whole American system of government—an institution that transcends the particular characteristics of the person who occupies it at a given moment.  As loyal citizens, we are duty-bound to respect the office itself, and to a certain extent—however much we might abhor it—this requires respecting the officeholder as well.

My sense is that most of us instinctively understand this basic rule of civic etiquette when it comes to the commander-in-chief.  I am reminded of the classic moment in Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon in which one of David Frost’s producers goes on a tirade about how Richard Nixon is a crook and a scumbag, only to shrivel up when he comes nose-to-nose with the man himself—a pricelessly awkward interaction during which he sheepishly grasps Nixon’s hand and mutters, “Mr. President.”

Up to now, that is more or less how civilized people have been expected to behave.  Because the president is a figurehead as well as an individual, he is to be treated with a shade more deference than if he were a private citizen, regardless of whether he deserves it or not.

Should Trump be the exception to the rule?  Should we adopt as official policy the sarcastic internet meme of treating Trump with “the same respect and courtesy as Republicans have afforded President Obama”?  Or, instead, should we take Michelle Obama’s advice and rise above the fray?

I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m with Michelle.  Not because Trump has done anything to earn it (he hasn’t), but simply for the greater good of the country.  Because if we succumb to the temptation to sink to Trump’s level of coarseness and depravity, we will be complicit in the cultural moral decline that, once upon a time, the Republican Party was so deathly concerned about preventing.

As well, if the ethical considerations of behaving decently toward the 45th president aren’t persuasive enough for you, there are practical considerations, too.

Several weeks ago, Trump met with a group of editors and reporters at the New York Times, which led columnist Frank Bruni to posit that the president-elect’s most salient characteristic is his desperate need to be loved.  As we’ve seen from his innumerable campaign rallies, Trump derives virtually all earthly pleasure from other people’s infatuation with him.  Emotionally unbalanced narcissist that he is, he can only be happy when everyone in the room offers their unconditional loyalty and approval.  As soon as one dissident appears, his entire sense of self-worth is threatened and he feels he has no choice but to lash out.  Just ask Alec Baldwin.

The downsides to having a human mood ring for a president are obvious enough.  (See: Russia, puppet of.)  But what about the benefits?

Bruni’s inkling—as he explained in depth to Charlie Rose—is that so long as we play along with Trump’s narcissistic personality disorder—namely, by showering him with a steady stream of adulation and over-the-top flattery—we can make him do pretty much anything we want.  As with so many fragile would-be authoritarians before him, vanity is his kryptonite.  He has become so blinded by self-love within his gilded bubble along Fifth Avenue that whispering sweet nothings into his ear has become the one and only route to his heart and his confidence.  Maybe—just maybe—if we began every policy discussion with some bald-faced appeal to his pride and that precious, precious ego, all his usual defenses would fall and we’d have him eating out of the palm of our hand.

Vladimir Putin was evidently an early adopter of this theory, and seems to have played his hand with gusto—as, for that matter, have several other rogue world leaders who can recognize a useful idiot when they see one.

That Trump apparently isn’t in on the joke—that he doesn’t realize he is being manipulated by every petty dictator on Earth—is, for my money, even more alarming than if it were the other way around.  He is undoubtedly the most gullible person to have won a national election in my lifetime, and the notion that he values personal compliments more than democracy or human rights is a viscerally sickening thought.

The question is:  Are we, his 300-odd million constituents, willing to pull a Mitt Romney by pretending to grovel at his feet in order to win some sort of influence in how the country is run?  As Romney himself learned, just because the Donald buys you dinner doesn’t mean he’s going to take you home for the night.

Accordingly—and in all likelihood—the next four years are a no-win situation for those of us who are not already loyal foot soldiers for America’s führer-in-waiting.  To him, everyone else is merely a means to an end, and therefore completely disposable as soon as their narrow purpose has been served.

If playing nice with him means he listens to you for a few extra seconds, maybe it’s worth sacrificing a piece of your dignity for the greater good of society.  But don’t delude yourself into thinking you won’t pay for it in the end.  As the West memorably learned in 1938, once you offer a dictator half of Czechoslovakia, it’s only a matter of time before he comes marching back in pursuit of all of Western Europe.

The Audacity of Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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