American Idols

“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Woo woo woo.”

In a strong field, that may well be the finest lyric Paul Simon has ever written—and for reasons that have nothing at all to do with the late former Mr. Marilyn Monroe.

Americans need their heroes—be they in sports, entertainment or maybe even politics—and they feel acutely vulnerable and adrift when those idols seem to vanish from the scene. This is particularly true in times of extraordinary distress and upheaval, such as (to pick a random example) a global public health emergency, when inspiring moral leadership is so urgently required.

For liberals who’ve been trapped in an existential funk since November 2016, one such hero is of course Barack Obama, the last U.S. president to exhibit any sort of compassion for his fellow human beings, who, unlike his wife, has made himself relatively scarce since exiting the White House more than three years ago.

That was until last weekend, when Obama made highly-anticipated dual virtual appearances before college and high school graduating classes of 2020—the latter televised in prime time—during which he intoned, “More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing. A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.” The speeches did not include the word “Trump,” but we’re not stupid.

Whether by accident or design, these commencement addresses came on the heels of “leaked” remarks by the former president in a “private” conference call that saw him loudly and explicitly castigating the current administration both for its abysmal response to the coronavirus outbreak and its corrupt handling of the Michael Flynn case—words so forceful that Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, responded, “I think President Obama should have kept his mouth shut.”

As a matter of political timing, Obama’s sort-of reentry into the cultural bloodstream is quite obviously related to the sort-of beginning of the 2020 presidential campaign, and the presumed crowning of Obama’s former wingman, Joe Biden, as the Democratic Party nominee. And certainly the party’s de facto standard-bearer has every right to publicly advocate for his hoped-for inheritor and the values he represents.

Beyond that, however, we, the people, have every reason to question whether McConnell had a point. That is, whether Obama’s broader commentary on the Trump administration is either wise or becoming of a member of the nation’s most exclusive club—namely, those who once had access to the nuclear codes and enjoy Secret Service protection to this day.

Indeed, the question of how ex-presidents should behave in retirement has been a matter of debate since March 1801, when John Adams opted to flee Washington, D.C., on horseback in the dead of night rather than attend the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson the following morning. In our own time—as with virtually everything else—the issue has broken along partisan lines, with Democrats like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton maintaining high profiles and busy schedules deep into their post-presidential years while Republicans like the Georges Bush have made a point of receding serenely into the background, content to have their records speak for themselves and their successors left to run the country in peace.

Old fogey-at-heart that I am, I’ve long had a soft spot for the latter approach to elder statesmanship, admiring of the discipline it must take not to gloat at everything the new guy is doing wrong.

In fact, Obama himself vowed to mostly adhere to the hands-off approach to ex-presidenting, telling reporters in January 2017 that, once Trump took office, he would refrain from open criticism except for “certain moments where I think our core values may be at stake.” In retrospect, considering the object of his prospective ire, perhaps that was Obama’s dry way of saying he had no intention of keeping his mouth shut and should not be expected to do so.

The real problem, in any case, is that Donald Trump is such a singularly appalling individual that remaining silent on his odious reign could reasonably be seen as a dereliction of duty for any self-respecting public figure—particularly one so devoted to appealing to the so-called “better angels of our nature.” In other words, the sheer awfulness of Trumpism—even compared to that of, say, George W. Bush—is sufficient to override the usual protocols of discretion among past presidents. These are not ordinary times, and it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

But here’s the thing: Part of the job of statesmanship is to be disingenuous every now and again for the sake of preserving the national fabric. Whatever one might think about Donald Trump, he is the duly-elected leader of our country for at least another eight months and maintains unshakable popularity among a not-insignificant chunk of our fellow citizens. As a head of state, he is entitled to a baseline deference that reflects the majesty of the office he holds, which transcends the character of whoever happens to hold it at a given moment in time.

When a retiring president passes the baton to his immediate successor, he is conferring legitimacy upon the most important public job in the United States—a hand-off in a constitutional relay race that has continued uninterrupted since George Washington peacefully ceded power to John Adams on March 4, 1797.

By then turning around and glibly musing to the nation’s schoolchildren that the sitting commander-in-chief has no Earthly idea what he’s doing, he risks ever-so-slightly chipping away at that legitimacy, rhetorically lowering the presidency to just one more partisan player in a vulgar federal political food fight, rather than the figurehead of the greatest republic the world has ever seen.

I say this in the full knowledge that Obama’s characterization of the Trump White House as a raging dumpster fire of incompetence is objectively, obviously correct. Nor am I under any illusion that the courtesy I am asking of Obama for Trump was ever extended to Obama himself at any point during his eight-year stint in the Oval Office. In effect, I am demanding a double standard whereby when the Republicans go low, the Democrats go high—a strategy that never seems to bear much fruit in the long run, however noble it may sound.

The plain truth is that there will be no good answer to this question until we have a new commander-in-chief. That the catchphrase of erstwhile conservative Rick Wilson, “Everything Trump touches dies,” extends to the presidency itself. That Trump is the exception to every rule, but once he’s gone, maybe we can return to life as it used to be, almost as if he never existed in the first place. Maybe.

In the meantime, with a pandemic raging and an economy cratering, the nation must turn its lonely eyes to someone, and while Joe DiMaggio is no longer available, I can think of at least one other Joe who is.

Sense and Sensibility

It is perhaps a sign of the increasing exhaustion of the Democratic primary race that sometime last week—possibly after several pints—I ruminated on the so-called first tier of presidential contenders and thought, “Maybe I’ll just vote for Michael Bennet instead.”

I’m not being cute or facetious—not entirely, at least. Fully one year into the 2020 campaign—and all the interviews, debates and magazine profiles that have followed—I feel like I’ve learned pretty much all there will ever be to know about the likes of Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg (not to mention the dear departed Kamala Harris), and wouldn’t be terribly upset if they spontaneously disappeared into a black hole, never to be seen or heard from again.

It’s not a question of dislike, for I admire every member of this elite quartet and would be perfectly happy voting for any of them on November 3, 2020. Rather, it’s a simple matter of overexposure and, with it, the nagging suspicion that the whole premise of which candidates are “serious” and which aren’t is a largely arbitrary, media-driven phenomenon that values personality and pizazz a bit too much and wisdom and prudence not nearly enough.

At this late date, there are 15 people still actively running for the Democratic Party nomination. How did it come to be that Biden, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg—to the exclusion of all the others—are worth paying attention to? Sure, they are the ones faring best in the polls at the moment, but when you interrogate the numbers a bit more, you find that a large proportion of the electorate—three-quarters, according to one study—is less than fully committed to one candidate over another and is prepared to switch loyalties between now and the actual voting period, which begins in Iowa on February 3 and ends in Washington, D.C., on June 16.  (The Democratic Convention runs July 13-16 in Milwaukee.)

The bottom line is that this primary contest is as fluid and unpredictable as any in the modern era. To which I must ask: Why not Michael Bennet?

To be sure, one can be forgiven for still not knowing who the hell Michael Bennet is. After all, he has appeared in only two of the six Democratic debates so far, during which his only newsworthy moment—a plea for education reform—drew less-than-flattering comparisons to a character from “South Park.” Beyond that, his candidacy has been virtually invisible to the average voter, despite occasional appearances on “The Daily Show” and similar outlets, none of which have nudged his poll numbers much beyond 1 percent. Indeed, I saw Bennet interviewed at the Boston Public Library for the local NPR station in August—I was sitting about 30 feet from the microphone—and he barely registered with me then.

More recently, however, I have taken it upon myself to give Bennet a fairer hearing, and I must confess that the more I see, the more I like.

More than anything, it is Bennet’s sheer even-temperedness that recommends him as the next leader of what’s left of the free world. Having served as a senator from Colorado since 2009, he embodies an area of the country that is both literally and ideologically in the center—the Centennial State has voted for Democrats and Republicans in roughly equal measure over the last several decades—and he wears the orientation well. Holding political positions that are at once “moderate” and well within the mainstream of his party—for instance, he is anti-“Medicare for all” but pro-“public option”—he is well-positioned to provide the Democratic base most of what it wants while not scaring off the nine million people who voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016.

The primary reason for this is character—the sense that when he says something, he really means it and is prepared to risk considerable political capital to stay true to his core convictions.

Prior to his tenure in the Senate, Bennet served four years as superintendent of the Denver Public Schools—a job he says will forever be the highlight of his professional life—and is never more impassioned than on the subject of America’s schools. (He was a runner-up to be President Obama’s secretary of education.) When he insists—as he often does—that he is more concerned with implementing free preschool than free college, you know instinctively that he is not merely making an appeal to the country’s all-powerful teachers unions. That, in fact, he speaks from hard-won personal experience and, given the chance, will almost certainly go to the mat for the nation’s emerging generation with all the firepower he can muster.

To be sure, Bennet is hardly the only presidential wannabe who wears his values on his sleeve. What distinguishes him from his competitors is that rarest and most improbable trait of aspirants to high office: Modesty.

Unlike true-blue liberal revolutionaries like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—whose stump speeches contain the fire and brimstone of prophets—Bennet does not strut around with the certainty of a man who believes he has figured everything out and is nothing less than God’s gift to America. Nor does he feel compelled to overemphasize—even fetishize—his relative ideological restraint as inherently virtuous, à la Amy Klobuchar, Buttigieg or Biden.

In his less-than-enviable position far off-stage from the main event, Bennet seems to have no strategy—no angle, no gimmick—beyond simply being his unadorned self, nor any illusions about his long, long odds of success in his current endeavor. In interviews, he recounts an early conversation with one of his daughters, who encouraged him to run for president, saying, “If you tell the truth and lose, no one can fault you for it.” To which Bennet replied, “There is no other reason for me to run, and I don’t think there’s any other way for me to win.”

There’s a touch of Harry Truman in that formulation, reminiscent of the moment in 1948 when, upon famously being told to “Give ‘em hell,” Truman gamely retorted, “I just tell the truth and they think it’s hell.” Admittedly, Bennet may be too mild-mannered even to go that far—if anything, he would be at home as the protagonist of a Frank Capra movie circa 1939—but the humble, plainspoken idealism is of much the same vintage and sensibility.

Bennet’s problem, of course, is that it’s not 1939 or 1948. In 2020, you cannot expect to be elected president simply by being a decent, honorable person with relevant experience and the occasional flare of righteous tenacity. Barring a series of dramatic events far beyond the imagination of mere mortals, Michael Bennet will not get anywhere close to being the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer in 2020. And that, in its own small way, is the great political tragedy of our times.

Patrick’s Day

Everyone has a personal anecdote they retell just a little bit too often. Mine occurred in October 2007 at the Parkman Bandstand on Boston Common, where a first-term senator from Illinois gave a rousing speech to an adoring crowd about why he should be the next president of the United States. Immediately following his address, Barack Obama worked his way down the rope line shaking hands, including my own. I may or may not have washed it ever since.

What I have tended not to mention is the other hand I shook that night—that of Deval Patrick, the then-governor of Massachusetts who introduced and formally endorsed Obama moments before the future president stepped up to the podium. While the precise content of Patrick’s remarks is lost to history (except on YouTube, of course), what I remember vividly is my being utterly spellbound by this newly-inaugurated political dynamo who, like Obama, had emerged from practically nowhere (actually, from the world of corporate law) to ascend, ever-so-rapidly, to the highest ranks of elected office.

Hearing him speak on that crisp fall evening, it wasn’t difficult to see why. Marrying fiery passion and thoughtful confidence with an eloquence that few orators of his generation possess, Patrick on the stump had that magical ability to incite righteous fury about the world’s problems while inspiring thunderous hope that, if we only came together in common purpose, every one of those problems could be solved. While I may not have envisioned him as a future president in that particular moment—he was Obama’s opening act, after all—he nonetheless commanded my attention as no other public official (including Obama) ever has.

I mention this now, of course, because Patrick announced at the end of last week—quite unexpectedly—that he is running for president in 2020, some 11 months after ruling it out and a mere 12 weeks before the Democratic primaries begin.

Can he win? Common sense and the laws of political gravity say absolutely not. Between having no money, no name recognition and no chance of appearing at Wednesday’s nationally-televised debate (and possibly not the one in December, either), Patrick would seem to require no less than an act of God to assume anything close to a competitive edge in what is already the most overstuffed crowd of presidential hopefuls in modern history. What’s more, the apparent premise of his candidacy—that none of the preexisting Democratic candidates is exciting enough to defeat President Trump next November—is belied by most polls, which suggest the party’s voters are quite happy with their buffet of suitors and are not itching for a white (or black) knight to swoop in and save them from themselves.

If money were involved, I’d say Patrick doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell to be the 46th president and is out of his goddamned mind to enter the fray at this extremely late date.

And yet: That voice. That command of language and evocation of sacred ideals. That dogged optimism that—despite all evidence to the contrary—America remains a land of bottomless opportunity whose best days are yet to come.

If any Democrat in 2020 can pitch the idea that Donald Trump is a moral aberration whose reign can be swiftly overcome and forgotten—and has the rhetorical gifts to sell that notion to a majority of the persuadable public—it may well be Deval Patrick. Indeed, as in 2006 when he first ran for governor, his relative obscurity among most voters could prove more of an asset than a flaw. After nearly a year of witnessing the same half-dozen “serious” candidates circle each other like hungry sharks, here’s an entirely new species of politician for us to consider with fresh eyes. What’s the worst that could happen?

How this actually shakes out will reveal itself soon enough—in all likelihood, by the New Hampshire primary on February 11. In truth, probably the most—if not the only—notable thing about the abrupt, 11th-hour entrance into the Democratic race of an entirely new candidate is the sheer audacity of it all—the presumption that a would-be serious contender could forego nearly a year’s worth of fundraising and profile-building and somehow still wind up on top.

It’s an utterly ludicrous electoral strategy with a near-zero chance of succeeding. But then again, Patrick would not be the first African-American political wunderkind in this century to employ audacity as an operating principle and use it to turbocharge himself to the front of the pack.  Weirder things have happened.

And will I, who has seen Patrick work his magic up close and in the flesh, cast my vote for him in the Massachusetts primary on March 3?

Ask me again on March 2.

It’s the Court, Stupid

There was a moment last week—thankfully, it was only a moment—when American liberals’ hearts stopped and it felt like the world was about to end.

It came when the U.S. Supreme Court announced that Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had recently undergone radiation treatment for a tumor in her pancreas—the latest in a long line of cancer scares for Ginsburg going back several decades. (She was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1999 and pancreatic cancer in 2009.)

While this most recent brush with mortality apparently ended well—“The tumor was treated definitively and there is no evidence of disease elsewhere in the body,” the court said—it served as a reminder—which we most certainly needed—that, at 86, the Notorious RBG will not be on the Supreme Court forever; that she is as susceptible to the ravages of age as the rest of us; and that her long and storied history of cheating death will one day come to an end.

Sooner or later, one way or another, Justice Ginsburg will be forced to relinquish her seat on the Supreme Court, enabling the then-president to nominate a successor—someone who, in all likelihood, will serve for the next 30 or 40 years.

As four out of five actuaries will tell you, that president will be Donald Trump.

Consider: Beyond Ginsburg’s own series of health calamities, only three Supreme Court justices in history have lived longer while on the bench than Ginsburg already has. Should Trump be defeated in 2020, Ginsburg would be two months shy of 88 when the new president is sworn in, at which point she could safely retire without the court’s center of gravity swinging irreparably to the right.

But if Trump is re-elected and serves until January 20, 2025? Well, what’s 88 plus four?

Did I mention that Stephen Breyer, the other long-serving liberal on the court, is just five years younger than Ginsburg and possibly less indestructible than she is?

I bring all of this up for one exceedingly simple reason: While the 2020 election may come to signify any number of things—about America, about democracy, about the future of Western civilization writ large—it will most assuredly determine the composition of the Supreme Court for a generation or more, and there is no more compelling reason for left-leaning voters to support the eventual Democratic nominee than that.

Long story short: The re-election of Trump all but guarantees a 7-2 conservative majority on the nation’s highest court. Just for starters, that means the disintegration of Roe v. Wade; the end of Obamacare as we know it; the solidification of the so-called “unitary executive theory,” whereby the president can do pretty much whatever the hell he wants for any reason. It means further erosion of the Voting Rights Act and firmer entrenchment of unchecked voter suppression. It means LGBTQ equality is no longer guaranteed but corporate personhood is. It means guns for all and unions for none.

It’s the great flaw of the Democratic Party (among many others) that its leaders can’t turn these dire, self-evident truths into a foundational election year issue—that they can’t seem to impart the monumental importance of the judicial branch in Americans’ day-to-day lives, and the singular role the president plays in shaping the composition thereof.

You know who did understand this dynamic and communicated it repeatedly, and to great effect, in 2016? Donald Effing Trump.

For all his blabbering, unprincipled incoherence on the campaign trail, candidate Trump made it crystal clear at every available opportunity—particularly when his back was against the wall and it looked like his entire candidacy was going up in smoke—that a vote for him was a vote for a right-wing judiciary from one end of the federal government to the other. That if Republicans entrusted him with control of the executive branch, he would bequeath them an unimpeachably conservative roster of judges—all with lifetime appointments—in return.

It was a brazen quid pro quo of the first order, and boy oh boy, did he deliver.

Ask a certain breed of conservative—the sort who found Trump by turns offensive, odious and embarrassing—why he held his nose and voted for him anyway, and he’ll simply rattle off two names: Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

That’s to say nothing of the president’s myriad appointments to the all-important circuit courts, filling vacancies that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell cynically—and, in retrospect, brilliantly—kept open while Barack Obama was in office.

This is neither to excuse nor justify the conscious enabling of an authoritarian, racist windbag by millions of voters who supposedly knew better.

Rather, this is to remind Democratic presidential candidates and their advocates that scaring their own voters about the future of the Supreme Court is an entirely valid and potentially fruitful strategy, and if self-preservation is an instinct they possess—a debatable question, at best—they could do a lot worse than to order a few million yard signs reading, “Democrats 2020:  Because RBG Isn’t Getting Any Younger.

You Have No Choice

Two telling moments from the political dog days of summer.

First, from President Donald Trump at his most recent Triumph of the Will-style rally, in Manchester, New Hampshire: “If, for some reason, I were not to have won the [2016] election, these markets would have crashed. That will happen even more so in 2020. You have no choice but to vote for me, because your 401(k), everything is going to be down the tubes. Whether you love me or hate me, you gotta vote for me.”

Second, from former Second Lady Jill Biden, at a bookstore in nearby Nashua, speaking on behalf of her husband, Joe: “Your candidate might be better on, I don’t know, health care, than Joe is, but you’ve got to look at who’s going to win this election. And maybe you have to swallow a little bit and say, ‘OK, I personally like so-and-so better,’ but your bottom line has to be that we have to beat Trump.”

Here we have two very different people speaking in two very different tones to two very different audiences, yet somehow the message is exactly the same—namely, the message conveyed on the famous 1973 cover of National Lampoon: “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.”

That, in so many words, is where we stand with our two likely presidential nominees in 2020: Vote for me, or else. Nice country you have here; it’d be a shame if something were to happen to it.

Our votes are not being sought. They are being extorted. Democracy at the point of a gun.

To be fair, Jill Biden is not her husband; nor, in any case, could her comment reasonably be taken as a direct threat to those who might take their electoral business elsewhere. (Trump, as ever, is another story.) No doubt she would characterize her “swallow a little bit” plea merely as an appeal to strategic pragmatism, seeing the big picture, etc. Indeed, if anything, her tacit acknowledgment that the former vice president isn’t anybody’s idea of a perfect candidate betrays a level of modesty and class that too few candidates (and/or their spouses) possess—not least in the crucible of a campaign.

All the same, there is something profoundly dispiriting about the wife and leading spokesperson for a major presidential contender resorting to lesser-of-two-evils talk a full 11 months before the party’s nominating convention. How sad—how pathetic—that the woman who knows Joe Biden’s strengths and charms more deeply than anyone alive finds it necessary to pitch her husband for the highest office in the land like he’s a used car with a better-than-decent chance of making it over the state line without losing all four tires.

Is it really too much to ask that our actions in the voting booth be motivated by something other than fear, dread or a sense of grudging, soul-crushing obligation? Must we be told that the primary—if not sole—reason to fill out a ballot a particular way is to head off an extinction-level event (e.g., four more years of Trump)? That if we don’t fall in line behind The One True King, everything we hold dear in this world will be flushed down the toilet?

Not to be overly sentimental, but what ever happened to the happy warrior? The guy who enters the arena with such joy—such clarity of moral and civic purpose—that he earns not only the public’s vote but also its admiration and respect?

Will there be anyone in 2020 who campaigns on the audacity of hope?

At a fundraiser in the closing days of 2016, Hillary Clinton reportedly quipped, “I’m the only thing standing between you and the abyss,” unwittingly channeling the resignation so much of the American left felt about voting for such a nauseatingly flawed candidate. On the right, meanwhile, were the likes of Michael Anton, whose inflammatory but widely-read essay, “The Flight 93 Election,” argued more or less the same thing from the opposite direction—namely, that Trump was the bulwark and Clinton was the abyss.

Across the political spectrum, it became both a joke and an article of faith that no one was truly happy with their options on November 8, and that a vote for Candidate X was meant primarily—if not exclusively—as a vote against Candidate Y.

But did it really need to be so?

Perhaps my memory is marred by unwarranted nostalgia, but I do not recall checking the box for Barack Obama in 2008 on the grounds that John McCain presented an existential threat to democracy or world peace (his running mate notwithstanding). Nor did I feel as such about Mitt Romney four years later, weird and obnoxious though he was.

In fact, I voted for Obama because I liked him a very great deal—his character, his ideas, his unique place in U.S. history—and affirmatively wanted him as both the chief executive and figurehead of the great nation I call home, and I am quite satisfied with what I ultimately got.

There is no compelling reason why every presidential election shouldn’t follow this same rubric, whereby candidates for high office present themselves as the means to a bright future irrespective of the alternative, whose victory would represent something more than the mere dodging of a painful historical bullet.

In 2016, with the slogan “Make America Great Again,” Donald Trump won by campaigning on yesterday.  With any luck at all, the winner in 2020 will be whoever campaigns on tomorrow.

To Love a Country

In a 2007 Republican presidential primary debate, Mitt Romney was asked, “What do you dislike most about America?”

To the shock of nobody, Romney dodged the question completely, responding, “Gosh, I love America,” adding, “What makes America the greatest nation in the world is the heart of the American people—hard-working, innovative, risk-taking, God-loving, family-oriented American people.”

It was a lovely thought, perfectly in keeping with the public persona of the ex-governor, now-senator we have come to know and, um, not completely hate.

Really, with a dozen years of hindsight, the most remarkable thing about that moment was that the question was even asked—that someone angling to be America’s commander-in-chief was challenged in a public forum to critique the very country he hoped to lead.

Indeed, when Romney took another whack at the presidency in 2012, he released a memoir of sorts, No Apology, whose title more or less summed up the attitude of his campaign.  As far as he was concerned, America is an idyllic land of milk and honey that has only ever been a force for good in the world, for which it should feel nothing but unadulterated, chest-thumping pride. 

As you’ll recall, President Obama’s greatest sin in office, according to Romney and others, was to have had the temerity to apologize for America’s various historical blunders—particularly on matters of race and foreign policy—thereby implying the nation is somehow less than perfect.  The nerve!

While Romney himself has since slunk off into complete obscurity—i.e., the Senate—his view of the United States as a moral dynamo on the world stage whose superiority must never be questioned has only hardened as Republican Party orthodoxy in the years since.

Or so we were informed last week by the current president, Donald Trump, who in a Twitter broadside against four congresswomen that managed to blend howling racism with wholesale incoherence, argued that anyone who is skeptical about how the United States is run—including those who have been elected to run it—has no business residing within the country’s borders and ought to “go back” to the far-flung lands “from which they came.”

“IF YOU ARE NOT HAPPY HERE,” the president tweeted, “YOU CAN LEAVE!”

Beyond the irony that three-fourths of the congresswomen in question were, in fact, born in the United States, it has been duly noted that few people in public life have been more openly scornful of U.S. foreign and domestic policy over the years than Trump himself.  Indeed, for all the money and privilege—untaxed and unchecked, respectively—that has spilled into his lap practically since birth, the president never seems to run out of grievances about the place that has handed him everything on a silver platter, up to and including its highest public office.

And yet.

Setting aside the singular, noxious bigotry that informs much of our Dear Leader’s enmity toward a republic founded on the principles of liberty, pluralism and equal justice under the law, Trump is absolutely correct in expressing his misgivings about his homeland without fear of persecution or prejudice.  He is right to assert—as he so memorably did in a 2017 interview on Fox News—that America is not “so innocent” in its behavior toward its geopolitical adversaries and, by implication, shouldn’t be held up as the moral paragon that the Mitt Romneys of the world would have you believe it is.

In other words, if you want an ironclad rebuke to the tweets of Donald Trump, look no further than the actions of Donald Trump.

That said, the president’s personal hypocrisy on this matter needn’t obscure the deeper truth, which is that the greatness of America resides precisely in the right of every one of its citizens to criticize it, because criticism, in the right hands, is among the sincerest expressions of patriotism and love.

Surely, Frederick Douglass had a few choice words for his mother country throughout his life—words that, we can safely say, have redounded to America’s benefit in the long run.  Ditto for the likes of Martin Luther King and Susan B. Anthony and Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader and innumerable other restless rabble-rousers who found a glaring blemish in the national complexion and took it upon themselves to fix it.

Criticizing your country is the first step to perfecting it.  It’s how you keep your country honest, challenging it to live up to its loftiest ideals.

Why settle for anything less?

A Queer Notion

On this final day of Pride Month 2019, allow me to note, for the record, that although I am technically a member of the LGBTQIA community (increasingly the most unwieldy acronym in the English language), you’ll never see me marching in any pride parade.

Why not?  In short:  Because I’m not much into parades and I’m not much into pride.

As I’ve possibly written before, I do not think one’s sexual orientation or gender identity should be a point of personal pride.  Rather, I tend to agree with George Carlin, who posited in his final HBO special in 2008, “Pride should be reserved for something you achieve or attain on your own, not something that happens by accident of birth.”

If we are to accept—as we should—that homosexuality and gender dysphoria are naturally-occurring phenomena that are totally beyond our control, what exactly is there to be proud of in acknowledging their existence?  Morally-speaking, being attracted to the same sex is no different from having green eyes or brown hair, so why should one be celebrated while the others are taken for granted without comment?  What, pray tell, are we celebrating?

The question is worth asking during any Pride Month, but it has acquired extra resonance this year in my home state of Massachusetts in light of the so-called “Straight Pride Parade” scheduled to take place in Boston later this summer.

Conceived and organized by a rogues’ gallery of right-wingers calling themselves Super Happy Fun America, this prospective pro-hetero march is an unabashedly snarky, unserious and meanspirited enterprise, intended primarily to protest and ridicule the means by which the queer community has seized cultural power in recent years, as one barrier to LGBT equality after another has fallen by the wayside.  (The odious—and highly non-straight—Milo Yiannopoulos will reportedly be the parade’s grand marshal.)

The gist of SHFA’s argument—which should hardly be dismissed out of hand—is that the LGBT contingent and its allies have become far too militant in enforcing the new rules on what can and cannot be said in public about the nature of various sexual identities, and far too unforgiving toward those who stray—either by accident or on purpose—from the official party orthodoxy on the matter.

Case in point:  When the idea of a “straight pride parade” was decried by the entire cast of The View, the group released an ever-so-tongue-in-cheek statement, calling the ABC program’s condemnation “an act of literal violence that has endangered the lives of heterosexuals everywhere,” adding, “Heterosexuals have languished in the shadows for decades, but we’re not taking it lying down.  Until an ‘S’ is added, LGBTQ pride will continue to be a system of oppression designed to systematically erase straight people from existence.”

The joke, in other words, is that the LGBT rights movement has been so wildly successful as of late—and has, indeed, so fully entered into mainstream culture as to be borderline uninteresting—that it has apparently left many heterosexuals feeling left out and marginalized.  As with men and women in the age of #MeToo, the victims have supposedly become the victimizers, and vice versa.  And so long as straight people see themselves as a disfavored minority—albeit one that comprises well over 90 percent of the population—why not release some of that pent-up anxiety with a good old-fashioned parade?

Yes, it’s manifestly ridiculous—but why is it any more ridiculous than a parade celebrating its opposite? 

Either we’re all equal or we’re not.  Having spent decades successfully convincing most of America that it’s wrong to judge people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, don’t America’s queer folk have a special responsibility to allow heterosexuality to be given its proper due?  Since when did sexual identity become a zero-sum game?

In a Newsweek cover story in 2012 that half-jokingly referred to Barack Obama as “the first gay president,” Andrew Sullivan wrote, “The point of the gay rights movement […] is not about helping people be gay.  It is about creating the space for people to be themselves.”  This, in a way, was a re-stating of Sullivan’s 2010 proclamation, “The goal of the gay rights movement should be to cease to exist.”

So far as I’m concerned, that is the attitude the LGBT community should strike about itself in 2019:  We’re here.  We’re queer.  Let’s move on.