Making the Case

“You think a lot about people you encounter, and there are a number of them in our community who voted for Barack Obama and Donald Trump and Mike Pence and me.  And one thing you realize […] is that it means that voters are maybe not as neatly ideological as a lot of the commentary assumes.”

So said Pete Buttigieg—the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and one of the two-dozen Democrats running for president in 2020—making arguably the most succinct possible case for electing a so-called “moderate” as the party’s standard-bearer against Donald Trump in the election next November.

Needless to say (but why not?), the question of what kind of Democrat ought to represent America’s loyal opposition in 2019 and beyond is the singular point of contention that primary voters will—and should—be debating over the next year and change.  Broadly-speaking, the eventual nominee could come from three possible spots on the ideological spectrum—the center, the left, or the far left—and a great deal depends on whether the Democrats’ perception of the country’s overall political bent matches the reality thereof.

Before we go any further, allow me to disclose loudly and clearly that, barring highly-unforeseen circumstances, I will be voting for the Democratic nominee on November 3, 2020, whoever he or she happens to be.  With Trump as the incumbent, I would happily and unreservedly support any of the possible alternatives without a shadow of a second thought.  Elections are about choices, and lesser-of-two-evils is the name of the game.

One presumes, of course, that a certain percentage of the electorate—somewhere between 40 and 45 percent, say—is on precisely the same wavelength as I am, and can be counted upon to reflexively line up behind the Democratic nominee, come hell or high water—a near-perfect reflection, ironically enough, of the #MAGA rubes who will stick with the president even if/when he murders somebody on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight.

In truth, when you add up every voter who, for all intents and purposes, has already made up his or her mind—i.e., will definitely vote for Trump or will definitely vote for his main challenger—you would be lucky to have more than 10 percent of the electorate leftover.

And yet, as ever, that 10 percent (or whatever) is precisely where the whole damn thing will be decided.  Indeed, while it’s true that every presidential election in our lifetimes has come down to the comparatively miniscule slice of the public known as “swing voters,” the singularly polarizing nature of the Trump era has shrunk America’s protean middle to little more than a sliver, thereby increasing the power and influence of every member therein, for better and for worse.

All of which is to affirm Pete Buttigieg’s implicit argument about how to win the 2020 election:  By making yourself appealing to the widest cross-section of the public as possible.  That begins with assuming that every genuinely undecided voter is persuadable, and acting accordingly.

Practically, this would certainly include venturing into enemy territory—Fox News—to make the case for why you’d be a leader for all Americans, not just those who watch MSNBC.  (Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders have smartly done this already, while Elizabeth Warren has foolishly, and loudly, refused.)  As well, it would require not smearing half the electorate as a bunch of freeloaders (á la Mitt Romney) or a “basket of deplorables” (á la Hillary Clinton).

In truth, it would entail little more than taking the American people seriously and treating them, more or less, like adults.

When Buttigieg reminds us about a certain, non-trivial chunk of our fellow citizens who voted for Obama in 2012 only to switch to Trump in 2016—and who, presumably, could swing back in the future—we are forced to reckon with the possibility that these folks’ political loyalties are a function of something other than racial resentment or any sort of coherent philosophy about the role of government in a free society.

Maybe, unlike us, they don’t spend 12 hours a day watching the news break on basic cable and Twitter, absorbing every last detail about life inside the beltway.  Maybe they lead busy, apolitical lives and haven’t given much thought lately to Robert Mueller or Roe v. Wade.

Maybe their tastes in presidents are more instinctual and elemental than weighing one set of policy proposals against another.  Maybe they voted for Obama because he promised them better healthcare, and for Trump because he promised them…better healthcare.

At the risk of reductionism and oversimplicity, maybe the secret to winning an election is vowing to give people what they want and not calling them idiots more often than is strictly necessary.

Would this necessitate misrepresenting, watering down or otherwise compromising your core moral and political values?  Only if you believe those values aren’t worth defending to a possibly skeptical audience.  And if that’s the case, why in holy hell should anyone vote for you in the first place?

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Biden His Time

Here’s a political question for us all:  Was the death of Beau Biden in May 2015 the most consequential event of the 2016 election?

Prior to being diagnosed with the brain cancer that would ultimately kill him, Beau Biden was a rising talent in the Democratic Party, serving as Delaware’s attorney general and generally assumed to be destined for higher office of one sort or another.

He was also the son of Joe Biden, then the sitting vice president and presumptive leading contender for the Oval Office in 2016.  By all accounts, the elder Biden was fully intent on a third run for president—following failed attempts in 1988 and 2008—and it was entirely due to the timing of his son’s illness and death that he decided to take a pass and effectively cede the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton.  And we know how well that went.

It’s the great political “What if?” of our time:  Would the 2016 election have ended differently had Joe Biden been in the mix?

With regards to the Democratic primaries, God only knows.  Maybe Hillary would’ve cleaned Biden’s clock—as both she and Barack Obama did in 2008.  Maybe he would’ve self-imploded through some embarrassing self-own, as he did in 1988 when it was found that he had plagiarized several of his campaign speeches.  Maybe he and Hillary would’ve fought to a protracted, bitter stalemate, allowing a third, outsider candidate (*cough* Bernie *cough*) to sneak past both of them.

But if Biden had somehow bested all his Democratic counterparts and emerged as the party’s nominee, could he have defeated Trump on November 8?

Answer:  Obviously yes.

Of course Biden could’ve defeated Trump in 2016.  Of course he could’ve flipped 80,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—i.e., the three states that wound up swinging the whole damn election.  Of course he could’ve appealed to a not-insignificant chunk of white, semi-deplorable working-class folk who otherwise find Democrats acutely irritating and Hillary positively intolerable.

Yes, in an alternate universe, Joe Biden could’ve been sworn in as the 45th president on January 20, 2017.

I say “could’ve,” not “would’ve,” since any counterfactual involves an infinite number of variables we can’t even begin to imagine.  What’s more, given the historically low occurrence of one political party winning three presidential elections in a row, it’s hardly inconceivable that Trump could’ve defeated any number of Democratic opponents in that strange moment of populist rage—not least the one most closely associated with the outgoing administration.

That said, hindsight strongly suggests Biden would’ve navigated the 2016 campaign more adroitly than Clinton did—if only from a lack of questionable e-mails or a sexual predator spouse—and may well have made the biggest mistake of his life in choosing not to take the plunge when he had the chance.

The relevant follow-up, then, is whether Biden’s apparently imminent entry into the 2020 primaries—for real this time!—will follow through on the untested promise of 2016 and serve as the de facto Obama restoration half the country has craved for the last two-plus years.  Or, instead, whether Biden’s moment really has come and gone, and the best he could do would be to sail off into retirement as a beloved (albeit slightly pervy) elder statesman.

In other words:  Having become as respected and endearing as almost any public figure in America today, why would Biden risk becoming a loser and a laughingstock yet again for the sake of one last roll in the hay?

The short answer is that Biden just really, really wants to be president.  Always has, apparently always will.  How badly, you ask?  Well, badly enough to address multiple recent allegations of unwanted physical contact by insisting that he regrets none of it and isn’t sorry about a damn thing.

And what about it?  On the subject of #MeToo-era sensitivity about men behaving predatorily, let’s not kid ourselves:  In a society where “Grab ‘em by the pussy” yielded support of 53 percent of white women, who’s to say “I enjoy smelling women’s hair but I’m also pro-choice” isn’t a winning route to 270 electoral votes?

The only certainty about the 2020 election is that no one has any idea how it will shake out—particularly those who claim they do.  Biden could defeat Trump in the sense that anyone could defeat Trump, although the converse is equally true.  Is he the most “electable” of all the Democrats in the field?  With 301 days until the first primary votes are cast, how much are you willing to wager that the word “electable” holds any meaning whatsoever?

I’ll leave you with this possibly-interesting piece of trivia:  The last non-incumbent former vice president to be elected commander-in-chief in his own right was Richard Nixon in 1968.  Care to guess how many times it happened before that?

Answer:  Zero.

The Bernie Conundrum

The Massachusetts Democratic primary is scheduled for March 3, 2020—exactly one year from Sunday—and, oddly enough, I haven’t yet decided for whom I will vote.  With a dozen-odd officially-declared candidates to choose from—and God knows how many more waiting in the wings—I see no particular rush in picking one potential future president over another.  Apart from anything else, I try always to bear in mind Christopher Hitchens’s observation that politicians tend to work a little harder for your vote if you haven’t given it away in advance.

That said, I can’t help noting that the Democratic candidate for whom I voted in the 2016 primary is also a candidate this year.

The hopeful in question is of course one Bernie Sanders, the cranky junior senator from Vermont who was into Democratic socialism before it was cool and whose supposedly loony-toon advocacy for universal healthcare has since become a core tenet of Democratic Party orthodoxy in one form or another.

In 2016, I supported Sanders over Hillary Clinton on the strength of his integrity and liberal bona fides—as Joe Scarborough quipped at the time, “He’s been saying the same thing since 1962”—and I would be prepared to support him over any number of other contenders in 2020 for the exact same reasons.

And yet…

You see, my feelings about Bernie Sanders have grown rather complicated as of late—not by Sanders himself, per se, as by his most ravenous defenders and by what he represents in the American body politic.

Since 2016, my (somewhat cheeky) bumper sticker shorthand for Sanders has been, “Trump, Minus the Racism.”  For all the obvious differences between the two men—to quote Matt Taibbi, “Sanders worries about the poor, while Trump would eat a child in a lifeboat”—there were (and still are) certain ways in which Sanders’s and Trump’s views of the world overlap.  Then and now, both reject the so-called wisdom of the Washington, D.C., establishment of both parties.  Both understand the corrosive, something-is-rotten-in-the-state-of-Denmark role of big money in our political system.  Both are scornful of America’s overly-expansive presence on the world stage.  Both are happy-warrior populists who say exactly what’s on their mind without any filter between their brain and their mouth.

And both inspire a measure of loyalty from a core group of supporters that can only be described as cult-like.  On one side is the Basket of Deplorables.  On the other are the Bernie Bros.

For both groups, the American Dream has effectively become unreachable for all but the most privileged among us—thanks largely to several decades of “rigged” policies by the nation’s elites—and nothing less than a wholesale blowing up of the entire system is sufficient to restore America to its former glory.

The problem with framing our country’s class and cultural divide in quasi-apocalyptic terms—appealing as it sounds at first blush—is that it naturally leads one in search of a savior—someone who presumes to walk on water and spin straw into gold.  And once such a messianic figure is found, it becomes increasingly second nature to view him as infallible—and, more alarming still, irreplaceable.

With Trump and Sanders both, that is precisely what has occurred.

At the 2016 Republican National Convention, Trump made a wretched spectacle of himself by describing the United States as a raging dumpster fire and proclaiming, “I alone can fix it.”  While Sanders himself has not quite sunk to such depths of solipsism and delusions of grandeur, his fans have gladly taken up the cause on his behalf, crying all over social media, “Bernie is our only hope!”—implying, with more than a hint of a threat, that if Democratic primary voters opt for one of Sanders’s gazillion intra-party competitors instead of him in 2020, they will shop around for an alternative, Jill Stein-like figure to support in the general election.  As far as they’re concerned, if Bernie can’t have this country, we might as well let it burn.

Needless to say, not all Sanders supporters are obstinate ideological absolutists.  After all, I’m a Sanders supporter and I’m not absolutist about much of anything beyond the correct way to eat a slice of pizza (handheld, folded in half, obviously).

What worries me, however, is that the amplifying—and, dare I say, toxic—effects of the interwebs will cause Sanders to be singularly associated with a gang of humorless, rabid, mansplaining lemmings, thereby turning off millions of otherwise “gettable” voters on both sides of the national divide, greatly narrowing his path to victory and, should victory come, making his operation look less like an organic grassroots political movement and more like the Church of Scientology—a place where unquestioned fealty to doctrine is required at all times and the perfect is forever and always made the enemy of the good.

I guess what I most desire for the 2020 election and our next president are skepticism, nuance and a wee touch of humility every now and again.  We’ve now lived more than two years under a commander-in-chief who seems to truly believe he has never been wrong about anything—or, at the very least, will never admit as much publicly—and who views dissent of any sort as a threat and a nuisance rather than an opportunity for personal and political growth.

Are we sure Bernie Sanders—the man whose views haven’t changed in half a century—is the ideal corrective to this state of affairs?  Is it really enough to replace one stubborn old mule with another simply because the second is smarter, kinder and more dignified than the first?

I don’t have the answer to that question today.  Ask me again in a year.

Cult 45

Way back in 2015, when the candidacy of Donald Trump struck most of America as a joke, many of us floated the theory—with tongue only half in cheek—that Trump was actually a Democratic Party plant, installed in the GOP primaries to discredit the entire Republican Party and ensure Hillary Clinton would be elected president in November 2016.

While history has rendered this hypothesis obsolete, there remains the underlying assumption upon which the theory was based, which is that Trump serves as a moral Rorschach test for every would-be conservative in America.

Posed as a question, the test is simply this:  How many of your so-called principles are you prepared to sacrifice on the altar of the most unprincipled man in America?  How many bridges are you willing to jump off before realizing that each one leads to nowhere?

If Donald Trump shot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue, would you still vote for him in 2020?

Of course, it was Trump himself who asserted early on that the answer to that last question is “yes” among his core supporters, and if the last three years have taught us anything, it’s that he couldn’t have been more right.

At this point in his presidency, Trump is not a public servant so much as a personality cult, and as the corruption piles up and more and more of his deputies get hauled off to prison, it is becoming increasingly obvious that there is a certain fraction of the American public—roughly 30 percent, although estimates vary—who are so emotionally invested in Trump—the man, the brand, the whatever—that no amount of criminality is strong enough to penetrate the bubble of loyalty that exists between the commander-in-chief and his fellow travelers, the latter of whom appear utterly incapable of seeing what is directly in front of their noses—namely, that the man they worship is a crook.

They’re not drinking the Kool-Aid.  They’re injecting it intravenously.

As with all personality cults, the fundamental problem isn’t the leader himself; it’s his followers.  Any schmuck can stand on a platform and declare himself king.  The question is whether there is a critical mass of people desperate and gullible enough to hand him the crown and obey his every command.  There is no con without a mark, and it remains truly frightening how many of them the 45th president has acquired and maintained from the moment he entered the political fray.

While Trump undoubtedly constitutes the most insidious personality cult in American life today, his is hardly the only one from which to choose.  Unseemly as it might sound, Republicans hardly have a monopoly on prostrating themselves to a populist politician who promises them the moon.

How else to describe the famous “Bernie Bros”?  You know them:  The far-left supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders who quote his über-progressive platform word-for-word and will expound for hours about how the 2016 primaries were rigged—rigged, I tell you!—against their beloved Bernie by the evil Democratic Party establishment.  Never mind that Hillary Clinton received 3.7 million more votes than Sanders, winning 34 contests to Sanders’s 23:  The point, sayeth the Bros, is that Sanders was the only Democratic contender who could’ve defeated Trump in 2016, and in 2020 it is he—and he alone!—who could pry Trump from power and usher his socialist utopia into existence.

Sure sounds cultish to me.

This is not to imply a moral equivalence between Sanders and Trump, only one of whom is a repugnant, shameless charlatan with no sense of basic human decency.  Say what you will about the junior senator from Vermont and his pie-in-the-sky ideas, but Sanders has shown not a whiff of the racism or xenophobia that—odious as they are in one person—can quickly grow dangerous and deadly when harnessed by millions of mindless lemmings who believe they are acting on the Dear Leader’s orders.

And yet, in the end, a cult is still a cult, and the unifying characteristic of all cults is mindlessness—i.e., the willful suspension of one’s intellectual faculties in service of a singular Great Man to whom all loyalty is owed and from whom all of life’s problems will be solved.  If the unquestioned adherence to Trump by the MAGA crowd takes this tendency to new heights—or should we say depths?—by and large, much the same was true for the most hardcore supporters of Barack Obama, whose very existence was seen as a panacea for all the partisan discord ravaging Washington, D.C., circa 2008.

In time, of course, a majority of Obama’s admirers came to realize that, for all his personal qualities, the 44th president could not walk on water after all, and was as capable of betraying his campaign promises as any commander-in-chief who came before him.

Will the aura of infallibility eventually break among those who worship Donald Trump—a man who, unlike Obama, seems to truly believe he can do no wrong?

Meet me on Fifth Avenue for the answer.

The Man Who Wouldn’t Be King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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.