Searching for Sister Souljah

Last weekend, a gang of racist and anti-Semitic terrorists descended upon Charlottesville, Virginia, murdering a 32-year-old woman and injuring 19 others in an unambiguous show of intimidation and blind hatred toward a wide swath of their fellow human beings.

In response to this clear-cut example of American white supremacy run amok, the president of the United States did what he does best:  Blame everyone but himself.  Provided a golden opportunity to appear presidential for the first time in his life, Donald Trump instead managed to denounce violence and bigotry in general but somehow forget to identify the groups responsible for the violence and bigotry perpetrated on Friday night.  The unrest in Charlottesville, Trump said on Saturday, was the fault of agitators “on many sides”—an argument he amplified on Tuesday, when he attempted to equate the “alt-right” with the heretofore non-existent “alt-left.”

As with most previous instances of Trump saying the exact opposite of what he should have said, there was no mystery as to why he avoided condemning neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates by name:  They are his most loyal and vociferous defenders.  Every one of them voted for him last November, and losing their support now would constitute an existential threat to his presidency in the election of 2020, if not sooner.  As ever, Trump’s only true instinct is self-preservation, and if a second civil war is the cost of winning his next campaign, so be it.

What Trump desperately needs—what America desperately needs—is a Sister Souljah moment.

As students of the 1990s will recall, Sister Souljah was an African-American musician and social critic who reacted to the 1992 Los Angeles race riots by remarking, “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?”  Asked to comment, then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton renounced any association Sister Souljah might’ve had with the Democratic Party, saying, “If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black,’ and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech.”

Clinton’s unequivocal disavowal of left-wing extremism—in the heat of a presidential campaign, no less—won plaudits as a mild profile in political courage, positioning him firmly in the center of the Democratic Party, while also drawing suspicion from many on the far left.  In the years since, the term “Sister Souljah moment” has become shorthand for a politician distancing himself from elements of his own ideological team, thereby risking his political fortune for the sake of moral rectitude.

To be sure, examples of such brave stands since 1992 have been few and far between.  Perhaps the most famous—and costly—condemnation came in the 2000 GOP primaries, where candidate John McCain bellowed to a crowd in Virginia, “Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right.”  While McCain’s bold (if equivocating) rebuke to the then-dominant “religious right” helped further cement his reputation as a straight-talking “maverick,” it did him no favors at the ballot box:  As it turned out, most Republican primary voters liked the religious right just fine, thank you very much.

Much more recent—and, arguably, much more admirable—was an interview with Bernie Sanders in February 2016, during which CNN’s Jake Tapper raised the issue of “Bernie bros”—i.e., Sanders enthusiasts whose pathological antipathy toward Hillary Clinton seemed rooted almost entirely in rank misogyny.  “Look, we don’t want that crap,” Sanders told Tapper.  “Anybody who is supporting me and is doing sexist things…we don’t want them.  I don’t want them.  That’s not what this campaign is about.”

The Tapper interview didn’t receive a huge amount of press at the time, but it was a signal test of character for the feisty senator from Vermont, and he passed with flying colors.  While there is nothing difficult about decrying sexism in all its ugly forms—or at least there shouldn’t be—Sanders went a step further by specifically disowning the people who are sexism’s leading practitioners—namely, his core voters—and, what’s more, by suggesting that if those idiots didn’t get their act together right quick, he would just as well not have their support at all.  He’d rather lose honorably than win at the hands of a bunch of cretins.

That moment is a mere 18 months old, yet today it feels unimaginably quaint—a relic from a long-bygone era in which chivalry was not a four-letter word and basic human decency was considered more valuable than gold.

Will America witness another Sister Souljah moment like that again?  Will we ever get it from the man currently in the Oval Office?

Indeed, it is very easy to imagine how such a disavowal would be arrived at, since Donald Trump has been offered one opening after another to give it the old college try.  Faced with the murderous, torch-wielding skinheads who comprise his natural constituency—and his electoral firewall—he would merely need to step up to a podium and proclaim, “Racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and all other forms of bigotry represent a cancer on the American way of life and will not be tolerated so long as I am president.  Furthermore, I cannot in good conscience accept the vote or endorsement of any individual who holds such poisonous views, for I could not live with myself knowing that I had gotten to where I am on a platform of race-baiting, violence, hatred and cruelty.”

Should Trump ever issue a statement to that effect—and mean it—it would signify a willingness not just to throw his basket of deplorables under the bus once and for all, but also to enlarge his base of support to include at least a sliver of the nearly two-thirds of Americans who do not currently approve of his job performance as commander-in-chief but could potentially change their minds in the future.  It would enable him, at long last, to become a president for all Americans—not just the ones in the SS boots and the white hoods.

Could Donald Trump ever rise to that occasion?  Isn’t it pretty to think so?

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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.

Hillary Clinton for President

What is the absolute worst thing you could credibly say about Hillary Clinton?

That is, once you remove the sexism, paranoia and conspiracy-mongering that define—if not consume—so many of her most passionate, deranged critics, what is the central compelling argument against Hillary being elected president of the United States?

I don’t know about you, but I’d hazard that her pathological duplicity will always take the cake.  The view that Clinton is inherently dishonest—that she fudges the truth even when it serves no strategic purpose—has dogged her for the better part of a decade now, not least with me.  Ever since her 2008 primary fight with Barack Obama, I have consistently doubted Clinton’s basic integrity and judgment whenever she’s on the campaign trail, suspecting that her pursuit of power has become so all-encompassing—and her protective shell so thick and impenetrable—that she can’t help but look shady whenever she finds herself in a political and/or ethical bind.

Oftentimes this criticism is unfair.  The authoritative fact-checking site PolitiFact has characterized 51 percent of her public statements as “true” or “mostly true” and another 24 percent as “half-true,” meaning that she outright lies only about one-quarter of the time—a fairly impressive batting average for such a high-profile figure.

And yet I must say—based on what is directly in front of our noses—that, on multiple key occasions, she has more than lived up to those worst elements of her reputation.

Consider, for instance, the way she reacted to Bernie Sanders’s demands to release transcripts of her highly-lucrative speeches to Goldman Sachs.  Accused of being dangerously close to Wall Street and the big banks—and issued a direct challenge to prove otherwise—Hillary and her supporters’ two-pronged response was to insist that a) It wouldn’t be fair for only Clinton to expose herself in this way, and b) There’s nothing interesting in those speeches, anyhow.  Trust us.

Surely I don’t need to spell out why that combination of non-answers is such a glittering red flag for someone running as a champion of the working class?  If there really isn’t anything surprising or incriminating in those talks—if they are as innocuous as we are led to believe—what’s the justification for keeping them a secret?  What is the political benefit of stonewalling about something that—according to Hillary—is no big deal in the first place?

There’s nothing conspiratorial in looking at baldly evasive behavior and concluding the person in question is hiding something that, if it became known, would imperil his or her chances of being elected leader of the free world.  As a rule, public officials do not go out of their way to conceal information that makes them look good.

During the Watergate investigation in 1973-74, Richard Nixon attempted to keep his White House tapes private because he understood that once their contents became public, his presidency would be over.

However, what Nixon did not understand—and what Hillary Clinton and every other 21st century politician damn well should understand—is that everything becomes public sooner or later, which means that any concerted effort to suppress information is indicative of either extreme paranoia or actual wrongdoing.  While Clinton has never once been found guilty of the latter—despite the GOP’s best efforts—her clear and ongoing penchant for the former counts as a serious character flaw that, if she is elected, will inevitably cause unnecessary and utterly avoidable problems for her in the Oval Office.

(As a footnote:  Thanks to WikiLeaks, some of those speeches were released last month.  While they did, indeed, reveal a cordial relationship between Clinton and various Wall Street fat cats, they were evidently not damaging enough for the public to ultimately give a damn.)

Now, I’ve written about all this before—as has virtually every other political junkie on planet Earth.  I mention it again now as a reminder—to myself and others—that we all must enter Election Day 2016 with both eyes open.  The choice America makes today will have enormous global consequences—good ones, bad ones and everything in between—and each of us needs to assume a measure of personal responsibility for how we mark our ballots this time around.

My own model for how to do this is Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher whose “categorical imperative” theory of ethics intoned, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

In the context of a presidential election, I take Kant’s commandment to mean:  Cast your ballot on the assumption that it will actually determine the winner.  Presume every race—presidential, congressional, mayoral, etc.—is an exact tie the moment you enter the voting booth, and that you will be held personally liable for what happens thereafter.

In other words, don’t vote for merely symbolic reasons and/or to make yourself feel morally superior.  Don’t vote strictly as a form of protest against a system you don’t like, or based on an imagined, ideal version of America that doesn’t exist.

I wonder:  Of the 5 or 6 million people voting for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, how many really, truly want him to be the most powerful man on Earth?  How many of his supporters saw that interview with Chris Matthews, in which Johnson couldn’t name a single foreign head of state, and thought, “Yup, that’s the guy who should be in charge of the world’s indispensable superpower”?

None of them, I hope.  From his (admittedly rare) public appearances in national media, Johnson has revealed himself to be a total dunderhead on issues of major global importance, and had he gotten even a fraction of the coverage that the two major-party candidates have received, he likely would’ve come off as even more ignorant than he already has.  Had he opted to run in the Republican primaries instead, he would’ve been knocked out in a week.

In truth, Johnson isn’t a serious alternative to the two-party system so much as an idea of one.  As with all protest candidates, his supporters are voting for him because he can’t win, illustrating that third-party voting is the ultimate expression of cheerful abdication—a way of participating in the democratic process without having skin in the game once the dust has settled and the business of governing resumes.

It’s a pretty neat trick, when you think about it—the electoral equivalent of having your cake and eating it, too.  You can rest easy about having exercised your most elemental democratic right, while also smugly bragging, to yourself and your posterity, that you bear no responsibility—none, I say!—for the unholy mess that ensued when the rest of America didn’t follow your lead.

If that helps you sleep at night—makes you feel pure and clean and leading a life of high principle—I guess there’s nothing I can do to stop you.  I’m sure that in some parallel universe—or perhaps some past or future life—I, too, have drunk the alluring elixir of the Lost Cause.  Indeed, it was just last March that I voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries, and that’s gotta count for something.

But the fun, hopeful part of this election ended a long time ago, and I have since resigned myself to the depressing fact that the universe does not always give you precisely what you want every minute of every day.  And when your favorite dish is no longer on the menu, you have to suck it up and move on to Plan B.

In this case, Plan B involves a woman who understands the intricacies of Washington politics and the intrigues of international relations as deeply as anyone who has run for president in my lifetime.

Hillary Clinton will make many mistakes while in office, will alienate much of the country most of the time, will always be under a cloud of suspicion for behavior both real and imaginary, and will never be as naturally charismatic and hip as her predecessor and former rival, Barack Obama.

And yet—on this day, with the choices that are in front of us—Hillary Clinton is the last best hope for an America whose values I share.  Values like pluralism, multiculturalism, rule of law, religious freedom, sexual freedom, marriage equality, gender equality, racial equality, diplomacy, free trade, environmental protection, a free press, and the principle that healthcare should be a fundamental human right.

I voted for Hillary on October 24, the day the polls opened in my home state of Massachusetts.  It was not the most enthusiastic I’ve ever been at the finale of a presidential election.  However, given the alternatives, this was by far the easiest decision I’ve ever made in the sanctity of a voting booth.

I knew exactly what I was getting myself into.  I understood the risks, the drawbacks and all the horrible, terrifying unknowns.  But life itself is a risk, with every choice we make riddled with possible complications that we may or may not be able to anticipate.

And in the end, I find there is no amount of personal reticence toward Hillary Clinton that can outweigh the fact of two of the most powerful words in the English language:

“Madam President.”

What Might Have Been

During the second debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, journalist Jeff Greenfield tweeted, “All year, I’ve told people who asked about an alternate history for 2016: ‘This IS the alternate history.’”

Yes, indeed.  And as this bizarro fever dream lurches toward its conclusion—likely in the form of a smashing Clinton victory—it’s hard not to fantasize about what might have been.  To mentally play out the 2016 election in a plane of reality devoid of Clinton and/or Trump.

To be sure, Americans have wistfully indulged in “What if?” scenarios for pretty much every election in history—if not every major news event, period—understanding, as we do, that one tiny hiccup in the space-time continuum can have a transformative effect on the course of human events.  Since reality itself is unknowable until it becomes known—and sometimes not even then—alternate reality has an otherworldly allure tailor-made for those who’ve had it up to here with the truth and would rather reside in the warm, reassuring embrace of pure fiction.

In 2016, that describes just about everybody, doesn’t it?

Let us begin, then, with Bernie Sanders and his vision for a more economically egalitarian way of life.  Had he somehow prevailed in the Democratic primaries—say, by attracting more African-American voters or by more aggressively attacking Hillary’s most vulnerable policy positions—would his general election campaign against Trump have been measurably different from Clinton’s?

Damn straight, it would.  For all the substantive agreement between the two Democratic candidates, Sanders would’ve presented as an entirely different species of opponent for his Republican counterpart—a simpler target in some ways, while a considerably more vexing one in others.

Most conspicuously, perhaps—particularly in light of recent events—Trump could not credibly have attacked Sanders on issues of character.  Unlike Hillary, Bernie hasn’t a whiff of scandal or corruption about him; he has rarely, if ever, altered his views for political expedience; he has not engaged in “pay-to-play” shenanigans with lobbyists or big banks; and he has not, in any case, been a party to the so-called “rigged” system that both he and Trump have vowed to fix.

As well, for all his theatricality in front of a crowd, Sanders is an utterly decent and morally serious person who went to extraordinary lengths to avoid a dirty primary fight against Hillary and presumably would’ve tried to comport himself similarly against Trump.  What’s more, even if he had chastised Trump for all the terrible things he’s said over the years—as he has been wont to do as Hillary’s loyal surrogate—what exactly would Trump have lobbed back in response?  We all know how much the Donald depends on projection to get his message across, but would anyone really have bought into the idea (if Trump floated it) that Bernie Sanders is a “liar” and a “bigot,” or that he has “tremendous hate in [his] heart”?

In other words, Trump’s attacks on Bernie would’ve come from an entirely different playbook from the ones he’s using on Hillary, and our imagination can only get us so far in picturing just how that might’ve panned out.  In all likelihood, as a 25-year far-left member of Congress, Sanders would’ve been painted as a feckless insider and/or an extremist loony toon—a line of attack that would surely be more effective from a messenger who is not, himself, a raging, unprincipled nut job.

In short:  If the last few months have taught us anything, it’s that Trump would’ve found a way to disqualify himself regardless of his Democratic opponent.  He can’t help it:  He is just too good at being bad.

But what if we removed Trump from the equation altogether?  What if Republican primary voters hadn’t gone totally insane last spring and, instead, nominated a comparatively normal (i.e. electable) candidate like Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush?

In other words, what if this election made any sense at all?

For the answer to that, we would do well to consult history, beginning with this rather remarkable piece of data:  Since 1945, 11 different men have been elected commander-in-chief, and of those 11, only one was picked to succeed a member of his own political party.  Except for 1988, when Republican George H.W. Bush took over for Republican Ronald Reagan, every presidential transition since the end of World War II that was not triggered by the president’s death or resignation involved a switch from a Democrat to a Republican, or vice versa.

If there is a central fact about the American electorate, it’s the desire to throw the bums out as soon as their natural term is up.  Although we have lately made a habit of re-electing the incumbent—itself something of a historical anomaly—we have shown an innate aversion to having a single party control the executive branch for more than eight years at a time—an inclination that explains why virtually every successful candidate in modern history has run on a platform of “change.”

Which is all to say that a Republican should’ve been elected president in 2016—or, barring that, that the race should’ve at least been quite close.  With 26 days until the polls close (thanks to early voting, many have already opened), it appears that neither of those things will happen, and the explanation for this really can be boiled down to two words:  Donald Trump.

In a Trump-less universe, could Rubio or Bush—or John Kasich or Chris Christie—have defeated Clinton?  Sure, why not?  All the anti-establishment momentum would’ve been in his favor, Clinton’s own shortcomings would’ve remained glaringly evident to all, and—most obviously—none of those other candidates (except perhaps Christie) would’ve been so completely crushed by the weight of his own ego.

As we learned in 2008, Hillary Clinton is hardly an infallible candidate.  For all her knowledge and experience, she can always be relied upon to get in her own proverbial way by being needlessly secretive, paranoid and/or outright dishonest.  It was her unbelievable good fortune to be pitted against the most cartoonishly unqualified opponent on planet Earth, and the fact that this election wasn’t over months ago is a testament to how much trouble she might’ve found herself in against a Republican foe who actually took this job seriously and wasn’t busy fighting off multiple accusations of sexual assault.

So if we are to write an alternate history of the 2016 campaign—or, as Jeff Greenfield would have it, the non-alternate history—we would require either a version of Donald Trump that was everything the current version is not, or a Republican electorate with the basic common sense not to tether itself to an unelectable thug.

Like I said:  Fantasy.

28 Days Later

Amidst all the sludge and dreck of the 2016 presidential campaign, over the weekend I was presented with a small but extremely welcome silver lining:  It will all be over much sooner than I thought.

To be precise, where I live in Massachusetts, it will be over on October 24.  In roughly a dozen other states it’s over already, and in any case, fully two-thirds of the country will be done with this wretched election sometime prior to November 8.

I’m referring here to so-called “early voting,” whereby you can essentially stop by your local precinct and cast your ballot whenever you damn well please, without or without a concrete reason.  As with absentee voting, the idea is that Americans lead busy, distracted lives and shouldn’t need to compromise their packed schedules in order to participate in the most important civic duty on planet Earth.  In short:  If voting is really as important as we claim, why limit it to a single calendar day?

More to the point—and in this of all years—voting early (if not often) carries the irresistible added benefit of hurling the memory of this election into oblivion as soon as humanly possible.

Yes, yes:  I understand the 2016 campaign will not literally end—and the winner will not officially be declared—until after the last vote is deposited on Election Day itself.  But I have followed the Clinton-Trump fracas day in and day out since (or, rather, before) the very beginning, and I am as convinced as I can be that the physical act of marking a ballot—no matter how prematurely—will produce such a profound catharsis for the person casting it that he or she will immediately tune out any and all further nonsense that occurs between that moment and the final results late on November 8.

And why is that, boys and girls?  Because over the last few days, this campaign has ceased being amusing and simply become sad.  Even for me—with my high tolerance for political tomfoolery and perverted sense of what constitutes entertainment—the sheer unpleasantness of recent events between our two major candidates has engendered real doubts as to whether this contest will endure for another four weeks without the entire electorate joining hands and leaping into the Grand Canyon.

Above all, of course, I’m thinking of Sunday night’s debate in St. Louis, where Clinton and Trump—but mostly just Trump—abandoned whatever semblance of high-mindedness they had left and proceeded to tear each other to shreds over the most tawdry subject matter that has ever made its way into a presidential forum.  Triggered by the recently-leaked audio tape in which Trump boasts of his proclivity for sexual assault (yup, that really happened), the candidates spent the first half-hour of their time arguing, more or less, about whether Hillary being married to a sexual predator is better or worse than Trump being a sexual predator himself.

On this question, we are once again compelled to accept that two seemingly contradictory facts can be true at the same time:  First, that Hillary’s role in smearing her husband’s alleged victims is among the most unattractive components of her career in public life; and second, that Trump’s own behavior toward women over the last several decades is infinitely worse, infinitely creepier and infinitely more disqualifying for someone seeking the highest office in the land.

For the zillionth time:  They’re both bad, but one of them is a whole lot worse, and we have a moral obligation to differentiate between different degrees of awfulness.  If our response to two imperfect options is to throw up our hands and say, “We’re doomed either way,” then our nihilism will become a self-fulfilling prophesy.  In the end, you get the country you deserve.

And boy did we deserve that debate.  It was arguably the most depressing 90 minutes of this entire campaign, and every moment carried a subtext of chickens coming home to roost for everyone involved—the candidates, the media and the 65 million folks despondently watching at home.

Indeed, in an odd way, the debate served as a near-perfect encapsulation of exactly what Americans’ choices over the last 15 months have wrought, for it allowed us to see our candidates for exactly who they are:  A pair of shifty, desperate, unscrupulous cynics, one of whom at least has the decency to know how government works and to truly grasp all the responsibilities that the American presidency entails.

Entering Sunday’s match in the guise of a human Molotov cocktail, Trump succeeded in wounding Clinton every now and again—say, by underlining her highly-checkered record on Iraq and Syria, or by repeating Bernie Sanders’s classic tropes about her shady dealings with Wall Street—all the while confirming every worst impression we’ve ever had about him.  (In the interest of time, we will refrain from listing them here.)

It was a moment of truth for us all, and a suggestion—even more than Friday’s disgusting tape—that this election has essentially played itself out.  At this moment, we have nothing left to learn about either of these political standard-bearers except for supporting details about everything that we already knew.  All the true surprises have come and gone, and the next 28 days will be nothing more than variations on the same tired themes.

This is not to say that we should withdraw from this ongoing major news event altogether, or that we should take our eye off the dwindling (but still potent) number of idiots who have yet to make up their mind.

And yet—if the most recent polling is to be believed—yeah, actually, we sorta can.  Barring the most dramatic plot twist in modern political history, this election is fundamentally over and the only remaining tension concerns the color of Trump’s face when he discovers, once and for all, that he’s a big, fat, racist loser.

Meanwhile—as we wait for that priceless image to congeal—we have the enormous consolation of early voting to keep us sane.  Here in Massachusetts, I will be washing my hands of this ridiculousness the moment the polls open on October 24, and I invite every eligible early voter to join me in that happy civic expedition.

Questions For Hillary and Donald

The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is Monday, September 26, at 9pm.  Here are some questions I would like to ask both candidates:

Mrs. Clinton:  On policy, do voters have any reason to think you won’t be serving President Obama’s third term?

Mr. Trump:  Is it true—as one of your ex-wives has claimed—that you once kept a book of Hitler’s speeches as your bedside reading?  If so, what did you learn from them?

Mrs. Clinton:  You have said there is no conflict between your pledge to regulate big banks and the fact that you have received millions of dollars in speaking fees from those same banks.  Do you truly not understand why many Americans cannot take your “tough on Wall Street” posture seriously?

Mr. Trump:  You have praised President Eisenhower’s “Operation Wetback,” which resulted in hundreds of U.S. citizens being illegally detained and deported because they were of Mexican descent.  Do you also support President Roosevelt’s initiative to hold more than 100,000 U.S. citizens in internment camps because they were of Japanese descent?

Mrs. Clinton:  You consider yourself a champion of the LGBT community.  However, you publicly opposed full marriage rights for same-sex couples until March 2013—exactly one month after retiring as Secretary of State.  When did you decide that gay people are equal to straight people with regards to marriage, and did it ever cross your mind that supporting marriage equality as America’s chief diplomat might have been helpful to the LGBT community?

Mr. Trump:  Earlier this year, you suggested that any woman who has had an abortion should be punished in some way.  Do you still think that today?  If not, what made you change your mind?

Mrs. Clinton:  You have expressed regret for saying that one-half of Trump’s supporters constitute a “basket of deplorables.”  Upon reflection, what do you believe the true figure to be, and how will you win the trust of those people once in office?

Mr. Trump:  When physical violence erupted at several of your campaign rallies, you lamented how such clashes don’t happen more often, saying, “Nobody wants to hurt each other anymore.”  How do you reconcile this philosophy with your pledge to bring “law and order” to America’s most violent cities?

Mrs. Clinton:  Why do you think you lost the 2008 Democratic primaries to Barack Obama?  If you lose the 2016 election to Trump, do you think it will be for the same reasons?

Mr. Trump:  In an interview, you claimed to be a highly religious person on the grounds that many evangelical Christians support you.  Are you religious in any other respect?

Mrs. Clinton:  If it were politically feasible, would you repeal the Second Amendment?

Mr. Trump:  You have disavowed the support of former KKK grand wizard David Duke.  Is there anything you two actually disagree about?

Mrs. Clinton:  Are you ever concerned about your propensity for appearing to have violated the law, even when, in fact, you haven’t?  Whom do you most blame for this perception—the voters or yourself?

Mr. Trump:  If a poll came out tomorrow saying that a majority of your supporters now oppose building a wall along the Mexican border, would you drop the whole idea and never mention it again?

Mrs. Clinton:  You have said you regret using a private e-mail server because of all the trouble it has caused your campaign.  Is that the only reason for your regret?

Mr. Trump:  You say you have a plan to defeat ISIS, but you intend to keep it a secret until after you win the election.  If Clinton wins instead, are you going to keep it a secret from her as well?

Mrs. Clinton:  Is there any major issue about which you think the majority of the public is dead wrong?  If so, have you ever said so in public?

Mr. Trump:  In your convention speech, you said, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”  If that’s the case, why didn’t you run in 2012?  Or 2008?  Or 2004?

Mrs. Clinton:  During the primaries, you opposed Bernie Sanders’s plan to make all public colleges tuition-free, arguing it would just be too darned expensive.  If you believed, in 2003, that it was worth funding the Iraq War with money we didn’t have, why doesn’t the same standard apply to higher education?

Mr. Trump:  You once said, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do.”  Where did you come by this information and why haven’t you shared it with the generals?

Mrs. Clinton:  In recently hacked e-mails, Colin Powell wrote of you, “Everything [she] touches she kind of screws up with hubris.”  Did it surprise you to read this?

Mr. Trump:  The screenwriter of the Back of the Future movies recently revealed that the character Biff Tannen was largely based on you.  Do you take this as a compliment?

Mrs. Clinton:  Have you ever consciously lied to the American people?  If so, why?

Mr. Trump:  Based on how casually and frequently you have completely reversed your position on one issue after another, why should anyone believe a single word you say?

Mrs. Clinton:  When you entered this race, did it ever occur to you that you might lose?

Mr. Trump:  When you entered this race, did it ever occur to you that you might win?

Profiles in Cowardice

A major reason I supported Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primaries was his uncommon political courage.  Now that his candidacy has died, I worry that political courage itself has been killed off along with it.

If courage is defined as saying or doing something at risk to one’s physical or social well-being, then political courage is saying or doing something at risk to one’s job or reputation.  John F. Kennedy wrote a book about it in 1957, and the Kennedy Library has bestowed a “Profile in Courage Award” upon worthy individuals every year since 1990.

It’s a shame that instances of public valor are so rare that they require official recognition whenever they occur.  Even worse, perhaps, is how the American people’s expectation for such high-minded virtue in their elected officials is so low that the very concept has essentially become a relic—particularly in an election year like this one.

All the same, it’s worth asking:  Has Hillary Clinton taken a single risk in her entire public career?  Has Donald Trump?  If we are to elect one of these people leader of the free world, shouldn’t we expect them to have assumed a gutsy moral stand on something—even if just by accident?

Barack Obama passed this test eight years ago by having openly opposed the Iraq War in 2002.  As for Bernie Sanders, you could say his entire tenure in Congress has been an act of professional chutzpah—specifically, his dogged insistence on calling himself a “democratic socialist” at every turn, despite the obvious hazards of identifying with a political philosophy that is still seen by millions as outright un-American.

In the case of Trump, the issue is complicated—as all such issues are—by the inherent unseriousness of Trump’s entire candidacy.  Since the Donald has shown, over and over again, to believe in nothing but himself and to change his political positions on an almost hourly basis, there’s really no standard by which we can say he has ever risked his so-called principles for any higher purpose.

Oddly enough, if he were a normal candidate with even a glimmer of intellectual consistency, we could say—with absolute truth—that he has taken brave political stances on multiple occasions throughout this campaign.  Indeed, Trump has, at certain points, unambiguously said things that, up to now, were considered ideological treason by the Republican Party and were grounds for excommunication from the party and the campaign.

For instance, there was that time he asserted—at a GOP debate, no less—that “millions of women are helped by Planned Parenthood.”  Or his repeated claims that Iraq was better off with Saddam Hussein than with George W. Bush’s war.  Or his related view that 9/11 was essentially President Bush’s fault.  Or his assurance that if Caitlyn Jenner walked into one of his buildings, she could use whichever restroom she wanted.

Ordinarily, any of the above would register as political audacity of the highest order, since no GOP candidate could reasonably expect to rise to the top with such heresies as those.

Except for two things.  First—and at the risk of repeating ourselves—there is no reason to think Trump genuinely believes anything he’s ever said (even many of his own supporters have their doubts).  And second:  By the time Trump even bothered making substantive remarks of any kind, he was already ankle-deep in sexist remarks, racist remarks, Islamophobic remarks and anti-immigrant remarks—all of which only enhanced his standing in the polls, thereby insulating him from all the usual rules of political logic thereafter.

In other words, once GOP voters bought into the bigotry, paranoia and white male victimhood that comprise the entirety of Trump’s appeal, they essentially stopped listening to anything else that came out of his mouth.  And Trump, sensing this, became liberated to break with any Republican orthodoxy that he wished, knowing it would have no adverse affect on his poll numbers—and, therefore, no longer qualify as political courage.

With Hillary Clinton, the calculus is mercifully simpler:  As a public servant, she is wholly preoccupied with the objectives of her various constituencies and the minutiae of turning those dreams into reality.  As such, she is possibly the most risk-averse person who has ever run for president and, if elected, cannot be expected to make any inspired leap of faith on any major initiatives.

To wit:  She supported the Iraq War until it started going badly.  For all her gay-friendly bona fides, she didn’t publicly endorse same-sex marriage until March 2013—10 months after President Obama did the same.  Her views on America’s various trade agreements tend to oscillate based on popular sentiment at the time, as do her positions on gun control, immigration and Wall Street.

There’s an interesting and worthwhile argument going on about whether Clinton’s identity as a cautious, finger-to-the-wind incrementalist is a virtue or a vice.  (In the interest of time, we’ll save that debate for another day.)  In either case, it means she will not—under almost any circumstances—be ahead of the proverbial curve on any controversial subject.  Indeed, it is not clear whether she believes a president should be a pioneer of that sort, or whether she should merely go wherever the public takes her.

Drawing from her research on Abraham Lincoln, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has said that the role of a president is to be a step ahead of the people, but to allow them to take that extra step on their own terms—that is, by nudging them in a certain direction without being pushy.

Would it be too generous to call that an accurate summary of how Hillary Clinton operates?  If pressed for a one-sentence appraisal of Clinton’s character, I’d offer that she has genuine political views—often shaped by trial and error—but that her deference to public opinion precludes her from sharing them until it becomes practical to do so.  Some would call this calculation.  Others would call it democracy.

In any case, hardly anyone would call it courage.  Clinton fancies herself “a progressive who likes to get things done,” and as appealing as that may sound (to progressives), it suggests a dull, single-minded efficiency that doesn’t allow for thinking too far outside the box, lest it distract from the central task at hand.

In the long run—and considering the historically impotent Congress we now have—maybe Clinton’s limited imagination will do the trick.  Maybe big and bold are luxuries we can’t currently afford and perhaps we’re better off not deluding ourselves into thinking otherwise.

After all, it’s not as if courageous decisions are an inherently good idea.  In the end, they are only as worthwhile as the person making them and the circumstances in which they come about.  If 2016 has taught us anything, it’s to be extremely wary of candidates who aren’t concerned about the consequences of their actions.