The Limits of Loyalty

Is loyalty a virtue or a sin?  Does the world need more of it, or less?

Donald Trump, in a controversial speech to the Boy Scouts of America on Monday, endorsed the former in no uncertain terms, rambling to the gathering of thousands of teenage boys, “As the Scout Law says, ‘A scout is trustworthy, loyal’—we could use some more loyalty, I will tell you that.”

The subtext of this remark was clear enough to anyone paying attention to current events.  Throughout the past week, the president has been very publicly steaming about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump feels betrayed him by recusing himself from the administration’s Russia imbroglio—and also, apparently, by not investigating Hillary Clinton for God knows what.  In an ongoing series of tweets, Trump has tarred Sessions as “beleaguered” and “VERY weak,” effectively goading him into resigning, lest the abuse continue indefinitely.

The implication—or explication, as the case may be—is that Sessions’s duty as America’s chief law enforcement officer is to protect Donald Trump from the law, not to defend the law against those who violate it, up to and including the commander-in-chief himself.  As Trump made plain in an interview with the New York Times, his hiring of Sessions was predicated on the AG serving the president—not the Constitution.

But then it’s not only Sessions who has found himself the object of Trump’s wrath on the question of absolute allegiance.  Let’s not forget James Comey, the former director of the FBI, who famously met with the president in January, when the latter said, point-blank, “I need loyalty; I expect loyalty.”  Comey’s eventual sacking—like Sessions’s, should it occur—was the result of being insufficiently faithful to the man in the Oval Office.  Of daring to think, and act, for himself.

As someone who has never been leader of the free world—nor, for that matter, held any position of real responsibility—I must confess that I remain skeptical about the value of unconditional submission in one’s day-to-day life and generally regard free agency as the far superior of the two virtues.  Indeed, I would argue (to answer my own question) that “virtue” might be altogether the wrong word to use in this context.

When thinking about loyalty, the question you must ask yourself is:  What, exactly, am I being loyal to?  Is it to a set of principles, or to another human being?  And if you are merely dedicating yourself to a person, what has he or she done to deserve it, and what, if anything, will you be getting in return?

Certainly, the spectacle of Trump demanding total fealty to Trump is the most extreme—and most cartoonish—manifestation of this latter category, since the president has shown minimal interest in reciprocating whatever devotion happens to come his way.  Except with members of his immediate family (so far, anyway), Trump’s modus operandi is to ask for everything and give nothing back.  Part and parcel of being a textbook sociopath, Trump views his fellow humans purely as a means to an end and rarely, if ever, stops to think how he might make their lives easier in the process.  It does not occur to him to treat people with respect for its own sake.  If anything, he views empathy as a sign of weakness.

This behavior may well represent an abuse and perversion of an otherwise useful human trait, but that hardly makes a difference when considering the enormous political power of the man doing the perverting.

Which brings us—by way of analogy—to Adolf Hitler.

In Germany, beginning in 1934, all members of the armed forces were required to swear a solemn oath—not to Germany, mind you, but to the man at the top.  This vow, or Reichswehreid, read, in part, “To the Leader of the German Empire and people, Adolf Hitler, supreme commander of the armed forces, I shall render unconditional obedience and […] at all times be prepared to give my life for this oath.”  As you might’ve guessed, soldiers who refused to comply tended not to live very long.

If that seems like an extreme and sui generis example of a personality cult run amok, let me remind you of the moment in March 2016 when, at a campaign rally in Florida, Donald Trump implored his adoring crowd to raise their right hands and pledge, “I do solemnly swear that I—no matter how I feel, no matter what the conditions, if there’s hurricanes or whatever—will vote […] for Donald J. Trump for president.”

While a stunt like that doesn’t exactly sink to the depths of the Hitler oath—Trump wasn’t about to jail or murder anyone who opted out—it is nonetheless a profoundly creepy thing for a presidential candidate in a democratic republic to say—particularly when you recall that Trump once reportedly kept an anthology of Hitler’s speeches at his bedside table.  This for a man who can otherwise go years without reading a single book.

That Trump evidently views Hitler as some sort of role model—and is haphazardly aping the Führer’s stylistic flourishes on the campaign trail—ought to give us serious pause about where his own fidelity lies—is it to the nation or himself?—and about whether his pronouncement at the Republican National Convention that he—and he alone—is capable of steering America forward was less an expression of supreme confidence than a barely-veiled threat against those who doubt that a serially-bankrupt con artist is the best man to preside over the largest economy in the world.

The problem, you see, is not that Trump is Hitler.  (He’s not.)  The problem is that he wants to be Hitler—and Mussolini and Saddam Hussein and Vladimir Putin and every other national figurehead who has managed to wield near-absolute authority over his citizenry—often with sarcastically high approval ratings and totally unburdened by the institutional checks and balances that America’s founders so brilliantly installed in 1787.

While Trump’s ultimate ambitions might not be as violent or imperial as those of the men I just listed—in the end, he seems to care about little beyond self-enrichment—the central lesson of the first six months of his administration—plus the first 71 years of his life—is that there is nothing he will not try to get away with at least once.  No sacred cow he will not trample.  No rule he will not bend.  No sin he will not commit.  He is a man of bottomless appetites and zero restraint.  Left to his own devices, he would spend his entire presidency arranging meetings—like the one with his cabinet last month—whose participants did nothing but praise him for being the greatest man in the history of the world.  A Kim Jong-un of the West.

Remember:  The sole reason Trump hasn’t already turned the United States into a full-blown banana republic is that he can’t.  Constitutionally-speaking, the only things stopping him from indulging his basest instincts are Congress, the courts and the American public, and we’ve seen how tenuous all three of those institutions can be.  Should the remaining branches of government fulfill their obligations as a check on executive overreach and malfeasance, we’ll be fine.  Should they falter—thereby providing Trump the untrammeled loyalty he demands—we’ll be in for the longest eight years of our lives.

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Against All Enemies

The election of Donald Trump was arguably the worst disaster to befall the United States since September 11, 2001.  But if you ask what will keep me up at night once Trump assumes power, the answer is:  Whatever disaster comes next.

I say “whatever,” but really, I mean terrorism.  If not a large-scale, years-in-the-making cataclysm like 9/11, then perhaps a series of multi-city, mass-casualty suicide bombings like we’ve seen throughout Europe the last several years:  Barbarous, politically-motivated strikes that, individually, are not destructive enough to bring America to its collective knees but, taken together, have the effect of radicalizing ordinary citizens into seeking extraordinary, extralegal measures to ensure such death and disruption doesn’t become (to use the buzzword of the moment) normalized.

You can see it coming from 100 miles away:  Trump conditions his supporters to view all Muslims with suspicion as potential ISIS recruits.  Then one day, their worst fears are realized when actual radical Islamists commit an actual act of terrorism on American soil.  As a consequence, those citizens who for years have been fed a steady diet of revulsion and contempt toward the entire Islamic faith will feel emboldened to act on those worst instincts.

At the street level, this will inevitably take the form of countless assaults and harassment against any and all perceived “foreigners” by brainless white thugs cloaking themselves in the mantle of “patriotism,” cheered on by fellow white thugs waving the flag of white supremacy.

We know this is what would happen following the next terrorist attack because it’s happening right now in the absence of it:  Every other day, we hear about some Muslim-American or other being targeted by deranged white idiots for the sole crime of reading from the wrong bible and praying to the wrong god.  Never mind that virtually every major act of violence in America since 9/11 has been committed by white Christians; never mind that you’re more likely to be killed by a piece of furniture than a terrorist attack; and never mind that, within the United States, organized Islamic jihad isn’t even remotely a thing.

Nope:  We are now firmly entrenched in a post-fact environment, and there’s no amount of data or common sense that will prevent several million of our dumbest countrymen from viewing several million of their fellow citizens as avowed enemies of our very way of life.

It’s an insane, racist, destructive way to think, and the incoming commander-in-chief has been enabling it every step of the way.

Without much doubt, a Trump administration will be lousy for women, lousy for African-Americans, lousy for gays, lousy for Hispanics and lousy for Jews.  But for my money, it is America’s Muslims who are the most vulnerable group of all, because their “otherness” is so completely (and irrationally) tethered to a gang of murderers 5,000 miles away over whose actions they have absolutely no control.

Like German Jews in the 1930s or the young women of Salem, Mass., in 1692, Muslims have become the designated scapegoats for most, if not all, social unrest in the 21st century, and it is entirely up to us—the non-Muslim majority—to ensure they don’t suffer a similar historical fate.

As with all other heretofore-unthinkable scenarios, we have little cause for complacency on this front.  Never forget:  During the campaign—in response to no specific threat—Trump suggested a blanket prohibition on all Muslims entering the United States “until we know what’s going on,” and also insinuated—albeit in his characteristically slippery, incoherent way—that the government should create some sort of “registry” to keep an eye on Muslims already living in the U.S.  You know, just in case.

The point isn’t whether he really meant it.  As anyone with half a brain ought to know by now, Trump doesn’t really mean anything.

The point—chilling and undeniable—is that, in Trump’s mind, absolutely nothing is out of bounds.  To him, there is no limit to what the president can do for the sake of “national security”:  The ends justify the means, even when the ends themselves are unclear.  Having never read a word of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Geneva Conventions or, for that matter, the Old and New Testaments, he believes himself immune to the institutional checks and basic ethical norms that every other democratically-elected official takes for granted and that serve as the societal glue that holds this crazy world together.

Fundamentally, our next president possesses the mind of a dictator, waking up every morning thinking, “If it can be done, why shouldn’t it be?”

Hence the profound unease we should all feel about how he might behave in an emergency—particularly given our country’s abysmal track record in this department.

Remember:  In response to World War II, Franklin Roosevelt systemically violated the Constitutional rights of 120,000 American citizens in the off-chance they were Japanese sleeper agents—and he is considered the greatest president of the 20th century.  Eight decades earlier, Abraham Lincoln reacted to the Civil War by unilaterally suspending habeas corpus—a highly unconstitutional move that was roundly condemned by the Supreme Court, whose judgment the president then promptly ignored.  And Lincoln was the greatest man in the history of everything.

You don’t think Trump’s advisers have studied up on those cases and are prepared to use them as a pretext for rounding up Muslims en masse in the aftermath of the next big national calamity?  More worrying still:  Are we at all confident that, in a 9/11-like situation, Republicans in Congress will summon the courage to defend America’s core principles and prevent Trump from assuming dictatorial powers from now until the end of time?

They won’t if they live in competitive districts and fear being “primaried” in the next election.  They won’t if they expect to be labeled unpatriotic and “soft on terror” if they dare suggest that not all Muslims pose a national security risk.  And they certainly won’t if there is a groundswell of support from America’s basket of deplorables to turn the world’s greatest democracy into a perpetual police state with the sole objective of making white people feel safe.

It’s a central—and oft-repeated—lesson of world history:  Republics cannot be destroyed except from within.  In 1787, our founders designed a system of government—subject to layer upon layer of checks and balances—that could withstand every imaginable challenge to its viability save one:  The failure of all three branches to uphold it.

On January 20, Donald Trump will raise his right hand and swear an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  If his public statements over the last 18 months are any indication, he will probably violate that oath midway through his inaugural address, at which point Congress will need to decide whether it truly values country over party, and whether the principles established in that very Constitution are still worth defending against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

Particularly when one of those enemies is sitting in the Oval Office.

Amend This

One of the more surreal moments of my four years in college was the evening Phyllis Schlafly came to town.

Although Schlafly, who died on Monday, was correctly known as a conservative Republican firebrand, the audience at her speaking engagement that night wasn’t necessarily any less liberal than the university’s student population as a whole.  As someone whose own worldview was at least 80 percent different from hers, I attended the talk out of sheer morbid curiosity, aware of Schlafly’s considerable historical significance as a 1970s right-wing ideologue, and I suspect that a large portion of my fellow attendees were there for the same reason.

Her spiel (I quickly gathered) was essentially the same speech she’d been giving all across the country for the past 30-odd years:  A broadside against feminism, liberalism, homosexuality, abortion, the sexual revolution in general, and any notion that, in matters of love and marriage, men and women should be treated equally.  In her time, Schlafly was often referred to as an “anti-feminist,” and in person she certainly lived up (or down) to that moniker, asserting, among other things, “Feminism is incompatible with happiness.”

Among today’s progressives, of course, hysterical opinions like that are increasingly viewed as relics of an ancient, oppressive regime that has rightly (if slowly) ground itself into dust.  Maybe it was socially acceptable to rail against gender equality and sexual freedom in, say, 1973, but our society has since gotten over itself and embraced legal equality of the sexes as a veritable no-brainer and a core American value.

Or so we would like to think.

Sure, most of the country has moved on from the misogynistic paternalism of the 1950s, but there is still a robust minority (i.e., the Republican Party) that feels differently about the respective roles of men and women, and it remains a force to be reckoned with.

And one reason for that is Phyllis Schlafly.  If her values have ceased to be America’s values, the residual strength of anti-feminism—the very fact that men and women are not treated equally in 2016—is thanks to her leadership on behalf of that powerful, lousy idea.

Above all, Schlafly’s legacy rests on her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment throughout the 1970s.  First introduced in 1923—and on a regular basis thereafter—the ERA would have enshrined in the U.S. Constitution that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”  If that sounds fairly uncontroversial to you, Congress apparently agreed:  In 1971, the House approved the ERA by a score of 354-24, followed by an equally overwhelming vote in the Senate and the blessing of no less than President Nixon to boot.  By then, all it needed was ratification by three-quarters of individual state legislatures and gender equality would’ve become the law of the land.

So what happened?  Well, it never quite got there.  While a bucket load of states ratified the ERA almost instantaneously—and a handful more tagged along in subsequent months—advocates of the amendment never reached the 38-state threshold they needed and the amendment ultimately faded away.  Why?  In short, because Schlafly and company persuaded those few remaining states that total equality of the sexes wasn’t such a hot idea after all, partly by arguing (wait for it…) that a constitutional right to equal protection based on gender would be irreparably harmful to women.

The continuing story of the Equal Rights Amendment is a true American classic, and it’s part of an engaging exhibit at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., called, “Amending America.”  With the Archives being home to original prints of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, this temporary exhibit looks beyond both documents to examine all 27 constitutional amendments that have been ratified to date, plus a sampling of 11,000 proposed amendments that, like the ERA, didn’t make it across the finish line.

You read that right:  American citizens—individuals, organizations and sometimes entire states—have attempted to change the text of America’s most sacred legal document on 11,000 separate occasions over the last 229 years and have failed 99.8 percent of the time.  If you ever wonder why things in America never seem to change all that much, there’s your answer.

The truth is that our founders deliberately made it very, very difficult to alter our Constitution once it was signed, figuring that the supreme law of the land should only be tampered with under extraordinary circumstances and with near-unanimous support from one end of the continent to the other.  In this über-polarized era, it’s no wonder we’ve only done it once in the last 45 years.

In the National Archives exhibit, we are treated to a contextualization of the 27 amendments that succeeded, with various explanations as to why and how certain proposals passed muster with both Congress and the states while so many others didn’t.

The first thing to notice—as this show does—is that more than half of our Constitution’s amendments in some way concern the question of individual rights—the right to free expression, the right to privacy, the right to due process and trial by jury, etc.  Indeed, no fewer than four amendments deal with voting rights alone, removing restrictions based on race, sex, age and ability to pay a poll tax.

Equally noteworthy is that among the amendments that address individual freedoms, only one—the 18th, establishing Prohibition—had the effect of taking away freedoms instead of expanding them.  It can hardly be a coincidence that, a mere 14 years later, the 18th Amendment became the first and only to be unceremoniously axed, following the nation’s collective realization that Prohibition was a terrible idea.

Beyond guaranteeing rights, the object of most successful amendments has been to tweak or clarify the way the government functions—a process whose extreme importance is matched only by its extreme dullness.  For every amendment that has granted mass suffrage or prohibited cruel and unusual punishment, there have also been those that have moved Inauguration Day from March 4 to January 20 or outlined when Congress can (and cannot) give itself a raise.

What’s the common denominator?  Not much, other than a critical mass of concerned citizens looking at a particular national imperfection and thinking, “You know, we really oughta fix that.”

Hence the rather hilarious variety of failed proposals over the years.  Among my favorites spotlighted at the National Archives:

  • A suggestion in the 1930s that instead of banning alcohol, the U.S. simply ban drunkenness, instead.
  • A plea, 100 years earlier, that no one who has engaged in dueling be allowed to run for public office.
  • A more radical plan to abolish the presidency altogether and replace it with a three-person executive council.
  • A similar scheme to divide the vice presidency among three people, ranking them, respectively, as Veep No. 1, Veep No. 2 and Veep No. 3.
  • A proposal—just before the U.S. entered World War I—that every war be put to a popular vote, and that everyone who votes “yes” be automatically enlisted to fight it.

Certainly, not all of the 11,000 duds were that entertaining, creative or outright loony.  Nonetheless, no matter how reasonable and practicable the more serious ones have been, they have failed to win the support of two-thirds of both houses of Congress and/or three-quarters of state legislatures, begging the question of what sort of amendment could possibly succeed in 2016?

Personally, I’d love to see the Second Amendment canned as definitively as the 18th, but I know better than to hold my breath.  Like much of America, I’d appreciate chucking the Electoral College once and for all, granting either statehood or basic representation to Washington, D.C., and getting big money out of politics, but is the status quo on those issues really so dire that we could muster a sufficient groundswell to actually get the job done?

I suspect not, and that points to the unfortunate truth that national consensus on a major subject—no matter how obvious in retrospect—tends only to occur once in a blue moon.  Lest we forget the immortal wisdom—falsely attributed to Winston Churchill—that Americans can always be counted upon to do the right thing after exhausting all the alternatives.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln enlightened us about the backbreaking work required to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, and that was after four years of fighting a damn war over the issue.  For its part, the original Bill of Rights was less an organized coming-together of common interests than an elaborate bargaining chip crafted by James Madison to coax a handful of reticent states into ratifying the Constitution itself.

Indeed, in many ways, this entire country was haphazardly cobbled together in a dizzying confluence of happenstance, compromise and brilliant improvisation, leaving us, in the end, with a series of founding documents that practically beg to be given a second and third look.

And we have indeed done that from time to time, but always while fighting the urge to honor precedent and the founders themselves, as if the ghosts of Washington, Madison and Hamilton will descend from heaven and collectively smite us for going against their divine wishes.

We should tempt the fates more often, for our sake and theirs.  And finally ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment would be a damned good place to start.

Continuity with Change

Out there in the über-liberal, anti-Hillary, Bernie Bro corner of the interwebs, the following challenge has been posed:

“Convince me to vote for Hillary Clinton without mentioning Donald Trump.”

As with so much else about the #NeverHillary crowd, it is unclear whether the above is a genuine, good-faith inquiry or just a snarky dig at Clinton’s supporters’ supposed moral bankruptcy.

It’s a rather bizarre question, in any case.  If it’s meant as pure rhetoric—a way of pointing out how the leading justification for Clinton’s presidency is that it would prevent a Trump presidency—then we can take the point while also acknowledging its childish assumption that competing candidates could ever be judged independently of each other—as if choosing one option didn’t also mean rejecting the other.

However, if the question is meant seriously, then it’s just a stupid question.

Can liberals identify reasons to elect Clinton that don’t involve her not being Donald Trump, you ask?  Are there really other liberals who think the answer is “no”?

There are dozens of ways to support Hillary’s candidacy without regard to her Republican opponent.  Many of them are identical to those that led millions of future Bernie Bros to support Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012—and, naturally, many of the same traits also applied to Bernie Sanders during this year’s primaries.  There are also reasons to endorse her that are sui generis, applicable to her and her alone.

Broadly speaking, Hillary is an enthusiastic subscriber to virtually the entire Democratic Party platform—thus, anyone in ideological agreement with Democratic principles is, by definition, in general alignment with Clinton on what we sometimes refer to as “the issues.”

For instance, she would clearly support and defend—and, if we’re lucky, expand and streamline—the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, overruling every last congressional attempt to kill it once and for all.

She would affirm the recently-established right of any two consenting adults to get married, have children and live happily ever after, while also ensuring those same people cannot be fired or otherwise discriminated against for unconstitutional reasons.

She would continue President Obama’s fight against global warming and his attempts to make the country more energy independent.

She would pledge solidarity with Muslims and other religious minorities against persecution by violent Christian extremists.

She would shape a Supreme Court that would vote in favor of a multitude of issues that liberals care passionately about—voting rights, women’s rights, transgender rights, you name it.

She would try to do something about gun control and—if the stars are aligned just right—maybe even succeed.

In addition to being the first female chief executive, she would appoint a record number of women to her cabinet, not to mention a boatload of ethnic and racial minorities spread throughout the executive branch, thereby inspiring countless young people to consider public service for the first time in their lives.

She would hold meetings and actually listen to what the other people have to say.

She would forge relationships with every last member of Congress, knowing that someday she might need their support for something important.

Long story short, she would essentially be a slightly more mature—but slightly less exciting—version of Barack Obama.  In effect, she would represent Obama’s third term in office, for better and for worse.  That’s the argument for electing her president.  Take it or leave it.

Now, it’s true enough that Clinton herself has never explicitly said, “Vote for me, Obama’s third term!”  However, it doesn’t require a great deal of reading between the lines to grasp the subtext of all of her major policy positions, which can be summed up as, “If you’ve enjoyed life under Obama, you’ll enjoy it under me.”

I realize this is an inherently uninspiring message—a tacit admission that things probably aren’t going to change very much over the next four-to-eight years—but it’s also admirably fresh and realistic—a means of subtly lowering our expectations to a level at which we might actually want to re-elect her four years hence.

Every president in history has needed to confront the gap between what he thinks he can accomplish and what he can actually accomplish, and Hillary Clinton stands apart from most previous candidates in her deep understanding of this fact.  Among the many differences between her and Donald Trump—a man whom, you’ll note, I haven’t mentioned in quite some time—is that Trump apparently thinks a president can do literally anything he wants, while Clinton knows full well that the job is extraordinarily limiting and depends on a great deal of teamwork to get anything meaningful accomplished.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy intoned to the American people, “Let us begin.”  When Lyndon Johnson succeeded Kennedy in November 1963—albeit under unusual circumstances—he said, “Let us continue.”  That’s the dynamic between Obama and Clinton:  They are so compatible in their basic worldview and value systems that we can expect an exceptionally smooth transition from one to the other (this time without an assassination in between).

I don’t know about you, but I have quite enjoyed the Obama administration.  It has followed through on a plethora of progressive actions that were utterly lacking under George W. Bush, and I can say unequivocally that my own personal corner of America is infinitely better off now than it was eight years ago.  If Obama were eligible to run for a third term, I would vote for him a third time.

But he can’t, so I’ll settle with Hillary, instead.

Many Republicans will be familiar with this sense of depleted enthusiasm, since they elected George H.W. Bush in 1988 by pretending he was Ronald Reagan, an incumbent who was term-limited after eight years of making many conservatives’ dreams come true.  In the end, Bush proved a capable but ultimately lackluster follow-up act, keeping some promises while breaking others, and is today admired as much by liberals as by conservatives.

History could easily be in the process of repeating itself on the other side of the ideological spectrum, and that is roughly what we should expect.  Hillary Clinton has drifted to the left on numerous issues as of late, but the intractability of Congress and Clinton’s own cautiousness will surely limit the reach of her administration’s most ambitious goals, resulting in exactly what her most clear-eyed advocates have promised:  Modest, gradual progress through compromise—a variation of Selina Meyer’s campaign slogan in Veep, “Continuity with Change.”

Sounds pretty good to me.

Greatest Expectations

Who could’ve known that Donald Trump isn’t always on the level?

While we can’t yet say for sure, this week we were provided the strongest evidence to date that the presumptive GOP nominee has something to hide.  Namely, his taxes.

During one of the many Republican debates earlier this year, Trump assured us that he will disclose his most recent tax returns just as soon as the IRS completes an audit.  Then, just a few days ago, he informed us that, on second thought, he might not release them at all—or at least not until after November’s election.  If he makes good on this non-promise, he would be the first presidential nominee in 40 years to keep his tax information to himself.

Ordinarily, our leaders’ income would not necessarily be an object of our immediate interest.  However, Donald Trump has made his apparently bottomless wealth the centerpiece of his candidacy—the centerpiece of himself, really—and so when he suddenly becomes squeamish about actually showing us the state of his finances, we are justified in assuming that something shady is afoot.

Is he not nearly as rich as he claims?  Has he been stowing his taxable income in a covert hideaway in Panama or the Cayman Islands?  Does he donate little or nothing to charity?  Does he count some secret love child among his dependents?

Unless and until Trump comes clean, we have no choice but to speculate.

In any case, it’s worth noting how brazenly and completely Trump brought this impending scandal upon himself—that is, by bragging about his income and then refusing to publish his 1099s.  His evasiveness on this issue—apart from being just one more demonstration of what a rotten president he would be—signals just how unprepared he is for the world of electoral politics—in particular, the art of managing expectations.

Up to now, Trump has built and sustained his shocking popularity among GOP primary voters largely through an endless stream of hyperbolic claims and impossible promises.  Whether in a debate, TV appearance or campaign rally, Trump only ever speaks in the vaguest and most extravagant terms when trying to sell or explain his policy platform, constantly employing words like “great,” “big,” “utterly,” “beautiful,” “wonderful” and “tremendous,” leaving himself precious little time for details, nuance or substance.  Unfailingly, when asked, “How will you solve issue X?” Trump responds with some version of, “By doing something terrific.”

On the one hand, this admixture of ignorance and cynicism is—like everything else about this man—almost too ridiculous to take seriously.  On the other hand, it indicates that Trump understands the same fundamental truth that Barack Obama understood in 2008 (and Ronald Reagan in 1980), which is that in a presidential campaign, hope conquers all.  That if you successfully conjure the image of America as a shining city on a hill on which the Lord’s blessings will never cease (with or without a big, beautiful wall around it), the public just may forget all the hard work that goes into making such a prosperous American Eden possible and will vote their dreams at the expense of reality.

However, what Trump apparently doesn’t grasp is that once the election is won and the burden of governing begins, the people will gradually regain their senses and expect at least a few of their dreams to come true.  And when none of those happy fantasies come to pass, they will begin to wonder just what they voted for in the first place.

Sure:  Every president in history has made pledges he was not able to fulfill—either because circumstances (read:  Congress) wouldn’t allow it or because—gasp!—he was an opportunist who never really meant it in the first place.  Sooner or later—whether by accident or design—the president is going to disappoint every last person in America.

The difference with Trump is that he genuinely believes he is invincible and that all checks on presidential power can be transcended through the sheer force of his libido.  From his various statements on immigration and foreign policy, he is either completely ignorant about the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions (among other things) or he simply considers them negotiable.  Why listen to Madison and Hamilton when you’re the guy who wrote The Art of the Deal?

In other words, for all his confidence tricks and bluster, Trump basically believes his own nonsense.  He promises his supporters the moon and the stars because, in some corner of his psyche, he thinks he can deliver both.

Well, he can’t—at least not without violating the Constitution and committing several war crimes along the way.

Which means that, should Trump become president, one of two things will happen:  Either he will succeed at rendering our founding documents moot and establishing himself as emperor, or he will discover that 229 years of institutional checks and balances are more powerful than one man’s ego.

Indeed, if there is a silver lining to Trump’s most reprehensible ideas, it’s the impossibility of them ever getting passed.  By setting the bar so very high, Trump has set himself up to fail.  Snake oil salesman that he is, he has planted ideas in the minds of his supporters that, by definition, will never come to pass.

Here, then, is the best argument yet that Trump is truly not a politician.  If he were, he would’ve caught on by now that campaign pledges are more than just words.  That once he’s in power, he just might be held to account for them and be judged accordingly.  That after four years of disappointment, those video clips of him saying, “We’ll have so much winning if I’m elected that you may get bored with winning,” will look even dumber than they look now.

It is my continued belief that Trump had no intention of doing this well in the primaries—let alone of becoming the nominee—and he therefore never saw any reason to calibrate his vision for America to how the government actually functions.  So long as his candidacy remained a manic pipe dream, he could swing for the fences without consequence.

However, now that he is effectively the face of the Republican Party, he is in the unenviable position of having to put up or shut up.  And we know full well that he is incapable of either one.

Losers

Quick question:  Will a Republican ever be elected president again?

I don’t mean to be flippant in asking.  I’m completely serious, although, as a liberal, I can’t pretend to despair at the prospect that the answer might be “no.”

Historically speaking, the odds of such a thing are just a hair north of zero.  Indeed, if the past several generations of elections have taught us anything, it’s that American voters can stand one party in the White House for only so long before swinging the other way and throwing the bums out.

In the last 63 years—that is, since the election of 1952—only once has the same party won three presidential elections in a row—namely, two by Ronald Reagan and one by George H.W. Bush.  On all other occasions, the executive branch has seen a transfer of power from one party to the other within either four or eight years.

Fundamentally, the country is split down the middle when it comes to political ideology, with the small group of folks in the middle ultimately determining which way the wind blows.  The last seven elections have been won by a margin of less than 10 percent, which is rather remarkable when you consider that five of the preceding nine were won by more than 10 percent.

So it stands to reason that—if only to satisfy statistical norms—a Republican will, in fact, win the presidency in 2016 or, at the absolute latest, 2020.

That’s before factoring in the legacy and current standing of the man whom our next president will succeed.  From a composite of recent polls, President Obama’s approval rating sits at 44 percent.  While by no means catastrophic—George W. Bush ended his presidency at 34 percent—it’s not exactly reassuring to a Democratic Party that might otherwise want to capitalize on Obama’s successes in anointing his heir apparent.

If Obama’s current levels of (un)popularity hold, he would be in roughly the same shape as George H.W. Bush, who couldn’t save himself in 1992, and in considerably worse shape than Bill Clinton, who was at 60 percent on Election Day 2000 and still couldn’t save Al Gore.

As if that weren’t bad enough, there was the media’s reminder earlier this month that, for all the Democrats’ dominance on the national level, the Obama era has seen sweeping victories for Republican candidates on the state and local levels.  There are ten more Republican governors today than in 2009 and, as reported in the New York Times, “Democratic losses in state legislatures under Mr. Obama rank among the worst in the last 115 years, with 816 Democratic lawmakers losing their jobs and Republican control of legislatures doubling since the president took office.”

In short, the 2016 race is the GOP’s to lose.  But they’re going to lose it, anyway.

Why?  Because Republican voters are determined to do so.

You don’t need me to tell you which GOP candidate is currently—and enduringly—ahead in the national polls.  Nor, for that matter, do I need to explain why this is such a spectacular moral farce.

However, in light of how close the Iowa caucuses have become and how little the polls have changed over the last several months, it is entirely worth spelling out this travesty in full, just in case the full force of it hasn’t yet sunk in.

Lest we forget that, for all his popularity with GOP voters, Donald Trump remains the man who ridiculed John McCain for having been a prisoner of war.  The man who said a Black Lives Matter activist deserved to be “roughed up” at one of his campaign rallies and that a pair of supporters who assaulted a Hispanic homeless man were “very passionate” people who “love this country.”  The man who is so hilariously thin-skinned that he picks (and loses) Twitter fights with people whom most Americans haven’t even heard of—including, most recently, a reporter whose physical disability Trump gleefully mocked onstage.

It has gotten people asking:  Is there anyone left in America whom Trump has not tacitly (if not personally) offended?

Apparently there is, because (at the risk of repeating ourselves) he remains the top dog among his party’s base, with his numbers consistently in the mid-to-upper 20s in a 14-person contest.  Much can still happen before Iowa and New Hampshire (to be held on February 1 and 9, respectively), but for now GOP voters have made their views clear, and the rest of us have no choice but to acknowledge it.

Once we’ve done that, however, we can proceed directly to the next self-evident truth, which is that Donald Trump will never, ever, ever in a billion years be elected president of the United States.

It’s not just that he’d barely get a single vote from Hispanics, whom he has tarred—directly or by association—as rapists and drug dealers.  Or that he’d garner zero interest from African-Americans, whom he affectionately refers to as “the blacks.”

Nope, in the end, his downfall may well come at the hands of the whites.

Should he secure his party’s nomination—following a demolition derby of a primary season, no doubt—he will discover that there is a good chunk of moderate, independent white voters who, despite conservative or libertarian worldviews, just cannot bring themselves to support a man who behaves like a real housewife of Beverly Hills.  Who is so emotionally unstable that he throws a spontaneous fit whenever anyone says anything unflattering about him, and so intellectually insecure that he name-drops his alma mater almost as frequently as his net worth.

For all their fickleness and inscrutability, American voters are cognizant of the image they project to the world when they elect a commander-in-chief.  While we are certainly susceptible to leaders who project strength through swagger and machismo (see Bush, George W., 2004), we are not so weak and panicky that we will surrender the Oval Office to a fellow who would enshrine religious and ethnic discrimination (back) into law.  We don’t mind sacrificing some of our privacy in the interest of fighting terrorism, but we aren’t prepared to sacrifice all of it.  We appreciate a chief executive who indulges in social media, but not necessarily at 4 o’clock in the morning.

We could go on and on about what a child Donald Trump truly is, but that would unfairly let the rest of the GOP off the hook.  As anyone paying attention to national politics knows, Trump is not the only “serious” candidate with a knack for behaving like a petulant toddler.  On Friday, for instance, the New York Times ran an amusing story chronicling the off-the-charts use of profanity by candidates throughout the campaign season, noting that employing four-letter words is perhaps the most promising way to draw attention to oneself and hopefully experience a bump in the polls.

Is there anything more pathetic than that, let alone more childish or un-presidential?

More broadly, the GOP in Washington shows no particular interest in shaking its reputation for obstructing every last Obama proposal for no reason except that Obama proposed it.  As the recent struggle to find a new House speaker demonstrated, Republicans in Congress have long since transitioned from a governing body into a gang of hyperactive, nihilistic know-nothings whose ambitions are limited to negating every major piece of legislation the previous few Congresses have passed, while spending the rest of the time calling each other names and screaming about the end of the world.

With a legislative branch like that, are we really on the verge of anointing an executive branch that’s on the exact same page?  To paraphrase Trump, how stupid are we?

The silver lining here—for Republicans and the country alike—is the theory that primary voters will eventually come to their senses and nominate one of the alleged grownups in the field—someone like Marco Rubio or John Kasich, whose experience and relative sanity could plausibly give Hillary Clinton a run for her money.  Trump supporters are, after all, a slim majority of all eligible voters and would be hugely outnumbered if only Trump non-supporters could reach a consensus as to which non-Trump candidate they prefer.

It could happen.  The 2016 general election may well end up as a variation of 2012, with two flawed but serious contenders who both see the world more or less as it actually is.  It’s not too late.

But if that doesn’t happen—if the GOP goes insane and nominates someone who is manifestly unacceptable to 55-60 percent of the country—then the next four years will probably look an awful lot like the last eight, featuring an ideological civil war within the party, during which its two major factions will debate, yet again, about whether the GOP should retain its extremist Tea Party bent and remain ideologically “pure,” or whether it should entertain such heretical concepts as moderation and compromise, which might include recognition of climate change, same-sex marriage and the consequences of white supremacy and lax gun control laws.

Shortly after Obama was first inaugurated, blogger Andrew Sullivan predicted that, with respect to the GOP, “It will get worse before it gets better.”  The past six-and-a-half years have certainly vindicated that assessment, although we are still waiting for an answer to the natural follow up:  Will it ever get better, or will the party ultimately disband and start over again from scratch?  It’s a crazy, outlandish scenario—one that hasn’t happened to a major political party since the death of the Whigs in 1856—but we may well have found the crazy, outlandish goons with the power to make it happen.

Ted Talk

Over Labor Day weekend, I paid my first visit to the newest civic attraction in Boston:  The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.

It was awesome.

This institution, which opened in March but was first conceived in 2003, is a great gift to the public and a noble step in the direction of fostering a more informed electorate.  And wouldn’t you know it:  In the way it has been planned and realized, it even stands a fair chance of being appreciated by the sorts of Americans it most vitally needs to reach.  Namely, young ones.

Let us begin with the center’s name, which is perhaps more revealing than it sounds.  It’s the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.  That is to say, it is a museum dedicated to the history and mystique of the Senate itself—our country’s most exclusive and powerful deliberative body—but is also, simultaneously, a loving and pointed tribute to a single member of that club—namely, the youngest brother of John F. Kennedy, whose presidential library sits just across the parking lot, overlooking Boston Harbor.

This means that, like a presidential library, this new civic tourist trap is a history museum with a point of view.  In this case, the view that the U.S. Senate has, in the end, been a force for good for the American republic.  That, for all its shortcomings, the Senate is the most indispensable and effective means of making life better for ordinary citizens.  And, finally, that Ted Kennedy—who represented Massachusetts from 1962 until his death in 2009—embodied all the best traditions of Congress’ upper house and is a sterling example of what can be achieved therein.

Considering Massachusetts politics and the extraordinary influence of the Kennedy family within the commonwealth and without, it is entirely predictable that such a place would exist.

However, I am sort of curious what Republicans and other conservatives might think about this temple to progressivism and its particular spin on the meaning of America.

On the one hand, right-wingers will presumably gag at the sight of “Lion of the Senate,” a roomful of Senator Kennedy’s greatest hits, from his support for the rights of women, gays and the disabled to his opposition to the Vietnam War to his lifelong pursuit of free healthcare for every man, woman and child.

For liberals, these issues and more are the essence of good government and what it means to forge a more perfect union.

But for conservatives, Ted Kennedy has always personified what they most fear and detest—namely, the idea that the central purpose of the Senate—and of the federal government as a whole—is to create a fair and equitable society and to spend lots and lots of money doing so.  Au contraire:  Republicans, as a rule, believe government should be as unobtrusive as possible and avoid meddling in issues that should be considered on a more local level.

There’s also the fact that, in the summer of 1969, Kennedy killed a 28-year-old woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, by accidentally driving his Oldsmobile off a bridge (Kopechne was in the passenger seat), then waited nearly 10 hours before notifying the authorities.  And yet, because of his illustrious last name, Kennedy was never arrested or charged with manslaughter.  He pleaded guilty only to “leaving the scene of a crash after causing injury” and didn’t spend a single night in jail.

For skeptics, this episode is Exhibit A in the charge that the Kennedys have always thought of themselves—and been treated by others—as being above the law.  The family remains “American royalty” not just because its members are so widely admired, but also because they seem to get away with things that mere mortals do not, from stealing elections to cheating on their wives to allowing young women to drown without calling the police.

If Ted Kennedy was able to redeem himself through 47 years of genuine hard work and accomplishment on Capitol Hill—a debatable but widespread view—so does the Ted Kennedy Institute justify its existence through its loving and meticulous treatment of the house in which Kennedy served.

However you might feel about Congress today, this museum takes great pains to explain how the Senate actually functions—pulling away the curtain to reveal what the day-to-day job of a senator entails.  For a certain chunk of wonky, nerdy right-wingers—the ones who quote Alexander Hamilton by heart and carry a miniature copy of the Constitution in their pockets—this joint may just win the day.

The literal and figurative centerpiece of the Institute is a life-sized reproduction of the Senate chamber itself, complete with 100 wooden desks and a visitor gallery above, and every so often, the museum’s PA system will summon everyone in to debate a bill.  Not a pretend bill, mind you, but an actual piece of legislation that has recently been introduced in Washington, D.C., and is being marked-up and argued about as we speak.  (The day I was there, the issue was whether to require vaccines for all children enrolled in Head Start programs.)

Here, as there, a suited-up museum employee reads a summary of the bill, after which two of his colleagues recite arguments for and against.  At this point, the mike is passed around the room for anyone else to add their two cents (upon being formally recognized by the presiding officer, that is).  Once that is done, everyone present whips out their tablets and clicks “Yea” or “Nay,” with the final tally emblazoned on a giant screen behind the podium.  (Admittedly, such a screen does not yet exist in the real Congress.)

The idea—simple but powerful—is that there is no more effective way to teach people the inner workings of government than to actually bring them along for the ride.  Legislating, like all activities, is best learned through active participation—rather than, say, reading a book or hearing a lecture—and democracy, of all things, should not be a spectator sport.

The people behind the Ted Kennedy Institute instinctively understand this, and their efforts at making the legislative process comprehensible to young (and old) audiences is commendable, not least because it is so rare and so desperately needed in our selfish, ignorant culture.

We are all well-aware of the abysmal attention spans of today’s youth, and I cannot imagine that a conventional museum about government—with long paragraphs of prose plastered all over the walls—would quite do the trick.

To be sure, the Ted Kennedy Institute contains a great many of those paragraphs—indeed, the sheer volume of information in this building is staggering—but you feel neither bored nor bombarded by them, thanks to the inspired idea of making everything electronic.

I mentioned that the mock Senate votes are done on tablets.  In fact, the entire experience is done on tablets, because every visitor is given one immediately upon checking in.  Like audio guides at more traditional museums, these devices allow you to wander the halls at your own pace and summon the sorts of information you are most interested to learn.

Yes, there is writing on the walls—with such predictable subject headings as “What is the Senate?” “Senate Milestones” and, of course, “How a Bill Becomes a Law”—but the words dance around and are interspersed with video and graphics so that your mind doesn’t wander too far before something new pops up.  The Institute’s designers realize that quick facts and choice anecdotes are the secret weapon for getting the average American interested in otherwise boring subjects, and they have been diligent in peppering these exhibits with plenty of both.

Will it work?  Will the hordes of field-tripping schoolchildren who visit the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate leave with an appreciably greater knowledge of how their country runs than when they arrived?

It is hard to conceive that they won’t.  If they do, it’ll be their own fault, because this place tries just about everything.

To be sure, it’s a crying shame that teaching civics in classrooms is such a dying art form that it needs to be exported to cultural institutions.  But at least those institutions exist, and this one in particular seems cognizant of how urgently its services are needed.  The opening of the Ted Kennedy Institute is not going to revolutionize the level of civic engagement in America, but it’s a start.