The Trial

In the coming days and weeks, the fortunes of two very high-profile American citizens will be determined (possibly) once and for all—and, with them, the very meaning of the word “fairness” in the national lexicon in 2019.

The Americans in question are Donald Trump and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—the president of the United States and the surviving Boston Marathon bomber, respectively—who both sit in judgment for their alleged crimes by a legal system built on the promise of equal justice for all but in real danger of appearing slightly less than impartial.

Trump, of course, is staring down the barrelhead of impeachment, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her merry band of Democrats plan to draft and vote on multiple articles by the end of the month, with a Senate trial presumably following shortly thereafter.

Tsarnaev, meanwhile—who has been quietly rotting away at the notorious ADX “supermax” prison in Florence, Colorado, since being sentenced to death in 2015—this week will be appealing his case in the U.S. Court of the Appeals for the First Circuit, where his legal team will argue (as one does) that Tsarnaev did not receive a fair trial.

As reported in the Boston Globe, the thrust of Tsarnaev’s attorneys’ case is threefold. First, that the defense was barred from presenting evidence that Tsarnaev had been coerced into committing the attack by his late brother, Tamerlan. Secondly, that by holding the trial in Boston—less than two miles from the scene of the crime—Judge George O’Toole necessarily stacked the deck against Tsarnaev, insomuch as every potential juror had been personally affected by the bombing in one way or another and, thus, had already formed an emotionally-tinged opinion about Tsarnaev’s guilt.

Finally, the defense will contend that at least two members of the jury were, in fact, openly biased against Tsarnaev before the trial began—as evidenced by social media posts that have recently come to light—and had concealed that information from the judge during the voir dire jury selection process.

Having followed the Marathon case from the beginning, I find all three of these arguments compelling—the second and third in particular—and well worth pausing over before allowing Tsarnaev to be the first person since 2003 to be executed by the federal government.

From the start, there has been no doubt about Tsarnaev’s basic guilt in planting the explosive device that killed Lingzi Lu and Martin Richard—including from his own lawyers, who admitted as much on Day 1. (Tamerlan planted the other device moments earlier, killing Krystle Campbell. At least 260 runners and spectators were wounded by the two blasts, including 16 who lost limbs.)

The question is one of process: At every step of the way, was Tsarnaev granted not only the presumption of innocence but also the opportunity to present his side of the story without undue influence from external factors, up to and including an avalanche of local media coverage that could very well have clouded the objectivity of the 12 people who were charged with deciding his ultimate fate?

In retrospect, considering how strong the government’s case was, was there really anything to be lost in trying Tsarnaev in a jurisdiction slightly farther away from where the crime occurred, with a jury slightly less inundated with pretrial publicity (not to mention the experience of having had to shelter in place” for a full day while the assailants were being hunted down)? By insisting on keeping the case local—in arguably the proudest and most parochial city in America, no less—did they not risk at least the appearance of a mob-like rush to judgment against the defendant, leading a reasonable observer to suspect the whole procedure was for show—or, dare I say, rigged?

That’s not how our courts should function in any context, no matter how foregone the conclusion might be. The whole purpose of trial by jury—and the appeals process that follows—is to ensure beyond all doubt that only the actually guilty are condemned as such, and only after exhausting every possible avenue—with every last piece of evidence—for convincing one’s peers otherwise.

In effect, the machinations of the American justice system—cumbersome as they are—are in service to the nation’s collective peace of mind. They are a means of being able to look ourselves in the mirror and be certain we have done the right thing and to prevent any fair-minded person from arguing to the contrary. The fact that this doesn’t always happen in practice—particularly with a less-than-white defendant—is no excuse for dismissing it in theory.

That is the spirit with which we should conduct and view the impeachment of Donald Trump: Not as a prepackaged march to an inevitable outcome, but as a conscientious search for truth that, whatever the result, all sides will be able to look back on proudly as a noble and wholly substantive episode in the history of American politics.

Of course, I am not so naïve as to believe that anything of the sort is likely to occur in the environment in which we currently reside. Impeachment, we are regularly reminded, is an inherently political institution, unbound by the rules and regulations that protect ordinary citizens accused of ordinary offenses.

What’s more, it has become quite clear in recent weeks that Trump and his enablers in Congress have no interest in legitimizing the House investigation of the Ukraine affair in any way, shape or form, assuming (justifiably) that some 40 percent of the public will follow their lead, come hell or high water—a luxury the typical criminal defendant does not enjoy and cannot expect. As far as they’re concerned, the very existence of an impeachment inquiry is proof that the fix is in.

That leaves Democrats with only one option: Call Trump’s bluff. Assume the best of intentions on the president’s part. Make him look ridiculous whenever he barks about hoaxes and witch hunts. Be so scrupulously circumspect in examining and re-examining every angle of the Ukraine imbroglio that, should a final vote for impeachment carry, no honest broker could say it came about fraudulently or in haste.

Would this approach be nothing more than a fool’s errand? In the short term, yes, insomuch as when it comes to Trump, honest brokers have become rather hard to come by.

But in the long term—that’s to say, in the view of every subsequent generation on planet Earth—we might look for guidance to George Washington’s favorite play, Cato, by Joseph Addison, in which a character asserts, “Tis not in mortals to command success […] but we’ll do more […] we’ll deserve it.”

There is no guarantee the prosecution of Donald Trump will yield a just outcome (whatever that might be). All his inquisitors can do is behave honorably in the pursuit thereof. In the realm of politics, winning is all well and good, but retaining one’s soul is a decent consolation prize.

Impeachapalooza

Ask the typical conservative what he thinks about the looming, likely impeachment of one President Donald Trump, and he will likely turn the question around by indignantly claiming that liberals have been plotting to impeach Trump “since the day he was sworn in.”

As one such liberal, I can assure you this is incorrect. In fact, we have been plotting to impeach Trump since before he was sworn in.

Not that he hasn’t made it exceedingly easy to do so. The precise meaning of “impeachable offense” may well be in the eye of the beholder—Gerald Ford immortally called it “whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history”—but it seems reasonable to conclude that the cumulative behavior of the sitting commander-in-chief, both before and during his tenure, amounts to a veritable buffet of disgracefulness wholly unbecoming of the highest office in the land.

The question isn’t “Has Trump committed an impeachable offense?” Rather, it’s “Which impeachable offense is the most offensive of them all?”

Is it the emoluments, i.e., Trump’s personal profiting from foreign dignitaries lodging at his many luxury hotels? Is it the campaign finance violations surrounding his silencing of Stormy Daniels mere days before the 2016 election? Is it attempting to collude with Russia to swing the election itself and covering up the subsequent investigation of same? Is it repeatedly putting in a good word for (or being silent about) the domestic terrorists who have attempted to murder his political opponents and/or members of the press?

Or—as Nancy Pelosi would argue—is it leaning on the leader of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, tacitly threatening to withhold millions of dollars in military aid if he doesn’t?

As Democrats and Republicans in Congress squabble about the precise nature of the president’s questionable July 25 phone conversation with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky—was it extortion, a quid pro quo or a friendly suggestion?—let us remind ourselves that impeachment doesn’t require a specific act of criminality on the president’s part—or, indeed, a specific act of any sort.

As Republicans were quite happy to point out when they attempted to hound Bill Clinton from office in 1998, impeachment can simply be a referendum on a president’s character—that is, on his collective personal flaws as they relate to, and impinge upon, the carrying out of his constitutional duties as commander-in-chief. As no less than Alexander Hamilton wrote in no less than the Federalist Papers, objects of impeachment are “those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.”

That’s a fairly open-ended standard for censure by the legislative branch, and in the face of Donald Trump, the case could scarcely be clearer or more damning. Surely, if Bill Clinton’s single lie about extramarital sex constituted a “violation of some public trust,” it stands to reason that Trump’s 13,000-or-so lies about just about everything—including extramarital sex—constitutes roughly the same thing, with interest.

As a moral issue, impeaching Trump is a question that answers itself. The real quandary—the practical one—is whether actually following through on the impeachment process will make any damn difference in the long run.

When it comes to this president—and this presidency—the closest we have to a statistical constant is the fact that virtually every scandal of Trump’s own making tends to fizzle out within 72 hours. Through the sheer volume of Trump’s offenses against common decency and the body politic, no single idiocy—however appalling—retains its outrageousness from one end of the week to the other before the next abomination takes its place. There have been exceptions to this rule, to be sure—Charlottesville and locking kids in cages chief among them—but they are, in fact, exceptional.

As such, are we so sure that impeachment, should it come, won’t be more than yet another ephemeral three-day story? That formally indicting Trump for various high crimes and misdemeanors, however legitimate, won’t be supplanted by some new, unrelated ridiculousness shortly after the official vote is tallied?

Political pundits have been breathlessly wagering about whether Trump’s impeachment would redound to the benefit of the left or the right come Election Day 2020. However, both conclusions assume that, 385 days from now, the electorate will even remember that impeachment was ever a thing.

Color me skeptical that they will—that impeachment may yet prove a mere minor episode in the reality TV show from hell that is America since November 8, 2016. That, like the two-year Mueller investigation that preceded it, it will evaporate like mist from the nation’s collective consciousness almost immediately after reaching its denouement.

The truth is that we may never know for sure what impact impeachment will have on the next election—we’re still arguing about the causes of the last one, with no consensus in sight—and this fact ought to be liberating for the Democratic Party. After all, so long as the consequences of moving forward with this inquiry remain indeterminate, there is all the more incentive to do the right thing for its own sake. “Tis not in mortals to command success,” intoned a character in Cato, George Washington’s favorite play. “[B]ut we’ll do more […] we’ll deserve it.”

Donald Trump should be impeached because he has abused the powers of his office above and beyond what should be tolerated by either Congress or the public. If he is to be re-elected in 2020, it might as well be with his full record of criminality on display for the electorate to either endorse or reject. In such a scenario, no voter could decently claim to have filled out his or her ballot under false pretenses. Everyone’s cards would be on the table, with no stone left unturned.

There are worse ways to run a presidential campaign.

Ed Markey, Time Lord

Congressman Joe Kennedy III scrambled Massachusetts politics last weekend by announcing his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in 2020, setting up a high-profile—and high-cost—Democratic primary contest between himself and the incumbent, Ed Markey, who was first elected to Congress in 1976, four years before Kennedy was born.

While I leave my fellow Bay Staters to make their own decisions on this potentially agonizing race, I will not be coy:  Come next September 15, I will be voting for Markey.

Not just because he is the lead Senate sponsor of the Green New Deal (partnered with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the House). Not just because of his unmatched zeal in defending net neutrality against corporate internet giants and the FCC. Not just because he is a more galvanizing public speaker than Kennedy—or, for that matter, his Massachusetts comrade-in-arms, Elizabeth Warren. Not just because I once sat directly behind him on a JetBlue fight from Washington, D.C., to Boston. (Who knew senators still fly commercial?)

No, I’m voting for Ed Markey in 2020 because he alone among U.S. senators has altered the laws of time and space to make the days longer and the nights shorter from sea to shining sea.

How’d he do that? Simply enough: By extending Daylight Saving Time by a total of four weeks.

“Through 2006, the clocks changed on the first Sunday in April and the last Sunday in October,” explained MassLive in 2013. “But as part of a 2005 energy bill, Markey, the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Rep. Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, sponsored an amendment to extend Daylight Saving Time beginning in 2007. From then on, Daylight Saving Time started the second Sunday in March and ended the first Sunday in November.”

That’s right, people of Massachusetts and beyond: Midway through the Bush administration, back when he was a mere congressman virtually unknown outside his home district, Markey was co-responsible for giving America an extra 30 hours of late-afternoon sunlight per year—including on Halloween!—by tinkering with the Daylight Saving calendar for the first time in two decades.

(Fun fact: In 1987, when Congress moved up the start of DST from May to April, the effort was then spearheaded by a young representative by the name of…Ed Markey!)

I don’t know about you, but few things bring me more joy than being able to go for a bike ride after dinner without strapping a flashlight to my helmet—and few things more depress me than the sudden encroachment of premature pitch blackness by the first round of the baseball playoffs. While autumn is, in many ways, the most lively and enjoyable season of the year, is it really too much to ask that, on Thanksgiving, we not be forced to choose between eating a fourth slice of pumpkin pie and tossing a football around before it’s too dark to see?

Research shows a clear correlation between prolonged exposure to natural light and one’s overall well-being—a conclusion generally borne out by common sense—and any effort to keep the sun shining deep into the evening gets my personal seal of approval 10 times out of 10.

Ed Markey has done more than any other public official to make Daylight Saving cannibalize as much of the calendar as possible. Quite apart from his many other accomplishments—and particularly in this era of near-total obstinance by both houses of Congress—Markey deserves enormous kudos for the immediate, concrete difference his work on DST has made in our daily lives.

And if he wants to ensure his own political survival against the electoral steamroller that is the Kennedy family, he should take the logical—nay, inevitable—next step by drafting a bill to permanently stretch Daylight Saving to all 12 months of the year, so that Americans will never again need to biannually tweak their clocks—and their circadian rhythms—for no good reason, nor be subjected to 4 o’clock sunsets and all the seasonal ennui that goes with them.

There’s a campaign platform for you:  “Ed Markey: Candidate of Light.”

Unknown Unknowns

“What if we were wrong?”

So mused Barack Obama to an aide shortly after November 8, 2016, as the election returns poured in and it became clear Donald Trump—not Hillary Clinton—would be the next president of the United States.  After a full year of assuming someone as vulgar and cruel as Trump could not conceivably be elected commander-in-chief, Obama was suddenly faced with the possibility that he lived in a very different country from the one he inherited eight years earlier—and perhaps he should’ve seen it earlier.

It is the rare politician who has the nerve and humility to admit he was (possibly) mistaken, but the truth is that even us private citizens are loathe to acknowledge personal weakness and tend to avoid doing so at almost any cost.  In the tribal world we now inhabit, certitude takes precedence over nuance every time, because when all discourse is reduced to a zero-sum blood sport, there can be no such thing as ambiguity, complexity or doubt.

With 18 days until the midterms and control of Congress hanging ever-so-precariously in the balance, it is my fondest wish for my fellow Americans to take a cue from President Obama and stop being so goddamned certain about who’s right and who’s wrong.

Surely, if the last election cycle taught us anything—about our leaders, our politics and ourselves—it’s that there’s almost nothing we can claim to know beyond doubt, and the consequences of assuming otherwise can be catastrophic.

To wit:  If the biggest mistake the left made in 2016 was to assume Trump could not possibly win, it stands to reason their biggest mistake in 2020 will be to assume he could not possibly win again.  This despite the fact that a) his three immediate predecessors were all re-elected handily, and b) Trump himself continues to defy all laws of political gravity, maintaining a fairly consistent—albeit consistently tepid—approval rating no matter what unholy nonsense is going on around him.

That so many liberals still refuse to see what is directly in front of their nose—namely, that Donald Trump is, thus far, politically unsinkable—is reflective of the blue team’s broader intellectual weakness of believing Trump and his acolytes are a bunch of rubes who have nothing useful to teach them.

But what if they do?  What if Trump’s personal indestructability is attributable not merely to rank stupidity on the part of 40 percent of the electorate, but rather to concrete policy achievements and genuine political skill?  What if Trump is smarter and shrewder than his critics give him credit for?  What if there are certain issues on which he has acquitted himself well, and not merely through beginner’s dumb luck?

What if, say, the 2017 tax bill really did supercharge the economy and make most Americans lives better?  What if Trump’s bellicose rhetoric toward North Korea really did bring Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table?  What if Trump’s proposed Mexican wall really would protect the U.S. from drugs and criminals spilling across our southern border?

Then there are the issues that extend well beyond Trump himself.  For instance, what if the federal government really is overstuffed with bureaucrats and regulations and deserves a bit of thinning out around the edges?  What if the direst predictions about climate change are overblown and the proposed solutions not worth the cost?  What if single-payer health insurance leads to less efficient care?  What if armed guards at schools prevent more gun deaths than they cause?  What if political correctness—on campus and off—has become so pervasive that it now poses a real threat to free speech in the public square?  What if Brett Kavanaugh didn’t assault Christine Blasey Ford in 1982?

None of these questions are settled—some may never be—yet nearly all of us act like the answers are obvious and not worth debatingand, what’s more, that those with differing views are not just wrong, but evil, beyond redemption and deserving of our bottomless contempt.

The result of this—as any clear-eyed person can see—is a society of angry, arrogant, insufferable boors for whom a question like “What if we were wrong?” is treated like a punchline, eliciting guffaws and eyerolls instead of even a moment’s thoughtful pause.

In this disheartening period of civic discourse, I am reminded of a 2006 speech by the late British-American pugilist Christopher Hitchens, who challenged his audience to ask itself, “How do I know what I already think I know?”

“It’s always worth establishing first principles,” Hitchens argued.  “It’s always worth saying, ‘What would I do if I ever met a Flat Earth Society member?  Come to think of it, how can I prove the Earth is round?  How sure am I of my own views?’”

Finishing the thought, Hitchens cautioned, “Don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus, and the feeling that whatever you think, you’re bound to be OK because you’re in the safely moral majority.

In 2018, there is no such thing as consensus, and we should start acting accordingly.  Not by abandoning all the values we hold dear, but simply by recognizing that ours are not the only values that have value.

A Woman in the House

Will 2018 be the year of the black woman in Boston?

Massachusetts’ primary elections will be held on September 4—the day after Labor Day, regrettably—and while there are several interesting intra-party races across the Bay State this season, far and away the most compelling is the Democratic nominating contest for the 7th congressional district between incumbent Michael Capuano and his challenger, Boston city councilor Ayanna Pressley.

District 7—encompassing most of Boston and a handful of surrounding towns—is the most ethnically and racially diverse in the state (only one-third of its residents are white), yet it has been represented for the last 20 years by Capuano, a straight white man, who has not faced a serious challenger from either party since his first campaign in 1998.

The main reason for this—apart from the historical tendency for incumbents to be re-elected at a near-100 percent rate—is that Capuano, 66, is an unabashed across-the-board liberal who has consistently spoken and voted in the interests of his constituents since the day he took office.  (Among other things, he boasts perfect ratings from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the Human Rights Campaign, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and the NAACP.)  As such, the good people of the 7th district have found little reason to make a change in who represents them on Capitol Hill.

Until now.

Ayanna Pressley, 44, who has been resoundingly re-elected to the Boston City Council biennially since 2009, is gunning for Capuano’s seat without any particular beef with his record or worldview.  Offered the chance to differentiate her political views from his, Pressley is wont to change the subject or talk herself into a corner, underlining the awkward fact that when it comes to the proverbial issues, there is virtually no daylight between these two candidates.  Line-by-line, pound-for-pound, Capuano and Pressley embody two sides of the same liberal coin.

Pressley’s real argument—enunciated in every interview and every debate—is that there is more to being a congressperson than having the right views or voting the right way.  That in a district where being left-of-center goes without saying, it is equally (if not more) important that a representative possess the life experience and perspective necessary to champion the needs of America’s demographic underdogs, of which her district contains multitudes.

As a black woman with a turbulent upbringing (she speaks of being the victim of multiple sexual assaults in her youth), Pressley presents herself as precisely the sort of person District 7 needs in 2018:  A poised, energetic, indefatigable advocate for her fellow women and people of color, prepared to stand toe-to-toe with House Republicans in defense of everything from abortion rights to criminal justice reform.  If she and Capuano are more-or-less ideologically interchangeable on paper, Pressley is the one with real skin in the game—and, by implication, will fight just a little bit harder for the kind of society her district wants and deserves.

The down-and-dirty truth is that Pressley is running for Congress as if Capuano didn’t exist—or, more precisely, as if his were an open seat and Capuano had no institutional advantage and deserved no benefit of the doubt.  (Capuano regularly cites his seniority as a virtue.)  She is running, in short, because she wants to—and why on Earth shouldn’t she?

Indeed, if this race weren’t a referendum on a 20-year incumbent, it would almost surely be Pressley’s to lose.  Beyond being a black woman in a minority-majority district, Pressley is the more polished public speaker of the two, as well as the more photogenic and the one more adept—for better or worse—at inspiring a rambunctious, loyal following among her would-be constituents.

Does this mean she’ll win the primary on September 4?  The polls say no—an August 2 survey had Capuano ahead, 48-35—but then again, the polls also said Joseph Crowley would beat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York on June 26, and look how well that went.

By any measure, Michael Capuano has been a faithful, passionate and effective representative of Massachusetts’ 7th district these past 20 years (I lived there for eight of them).  His defeat, should it occur, would be a major loss for the people of Boston.  Then again, a victory by Ayanna Pressley would almost surely be a major gain.

A Grand Compromise

Last Wednesday, a 19-year-old lunatic opened fire at a Florida high school, killing 17 students and teachers and wounding several others.  This Valentine’s Day massacre was the 30th mass shooting in the United States so far this year, and the most deadly.

As our fellow citizens raced into their predicable opinion bubbles, ruminating on how to properly react to yet another instance of pointless American carnage, one sentiment struck me with particular force:  “If you oppose gun control, you can’t call yourself pro-life.”

On the one hand, an assertion like that speaks for itself.  Guns equal death; therefore, to foster life, eliminate the guns.  Surely the “pro-life” movement, whose entire platform is based on protecting the young and vulnerable, can appreciate this as well as anyone.

And yet, unfortunately, the world is more complicated than that, if only because of the apparently intractable politics that have enabled America to become the most trigger-happy advanced nation on Earth.  Even when overwhelming majorities of the public support certain basic changes to who gets to own deadly weapons in this country—and who doesn’t—the financial tyranny of the NRA over our elected officials guarantees a bloody status quo on guns for many years to come.

Into this breach, I offer a modest proposal:  Repeal the Second Amendment once and for all, and in exchange, allow the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

That’s right:  I’m suggesting a good old-fashioned trade-off whereby two groups claiming the mantle of “pro-life” can put their money where their mouth is, and two major issues can be addressed in one fell swoop.

Obtuse as it may sound, there is a certain symmetry in tethering gun rights to abortion rights.  After all, both are rooted in core constitutional principles—the former in the aforementioned Second Amendment; the latter in the Fourteenth.  Both involve the direct, deliberate taking of human life, sometimes for morally dubious reasons.  Both provoke deep, painful and ultimately irresolvable debates about what it means to be a free American.  Finally, both hinge on the question of federalism and what it would mean, practically-speaking, if we were to radically decentralize certain rights we have heretofore regarded as (to coin a phrase) inalienable.

Of course, we’ll never find out the exact answer to that question, since neither the Second Amendment nor Roe v. Wade will be disappearing any time in the foreseeable future—a fact that leaves me half-relieved and half-depressed (not necessarily in that order).

All the same, having witnessed lawmakers’ shameful abdication of leadership in the teeth of one heinous—and utterly preventable—mass shooting after another, I have reached the dispiriting conclusion that our national epidemic of gun violence will never abate unless and until we decide, as a people, that there shouldn’t be a right to bear arms in the first place.  While such seemingly obvious fixes as an assault weapons ban or robust background checks would undoubtedly save countless lives, neither addresses the fundamental collective psychosis that is Americans’ fetishization of hand-held killing machines, for which the Second Amendment provides both legal and cultural cover.

Were I to become king, I would gut the Second Amendment tomorrow and hurl every firearm into a volcano.  However, since I am not king and we live in a republic, I recognize that, one way or another, effecting truly transformational gun reform will come at a price—and a painful one at that.  In a country with such wildly divergent views of liberty and freedom and right and wrong, no major ideological settlement can be made cleanly or simply:  There must be a fight, and both sides must be prepared to give at least as much as they are hoping to take.

It’s hard to believe today, but this was something that America used to be able to accomplish.  Indeed, look closely enough and you’ll notice a large chunk of modern American life came about through incongruous—if not outright ludicrous—grand compromises, many of them sealed in proverbial smoke-filled rooms or around dinner tables in between bottles of Port.  Think Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton agreeing to establish a national bank in exchange for moving the capital from New York to Virginia.  Or the Compromise of 1850, which gave us the horrid Fugitive Slave Act, but also California.  (The former was eventually repealed.  The latter, not yet.)  Or the fact that the Constitutional Convention itself gifted us a bicameral legislature, with one house favoring small states and the other favoring large ones.

That was then.  Now, of course, we are represented by a Congress that can’t seem to pass laws everyone likes, let alone ones that divide America straight down the middle.  Because our body politic has become so irretrievably tribal—so blindingly partisan, so stubbornly zero-sum—the very notion of compromise has increasingly been conflated with weakness, capitulation and ideological selling-out, rather than for what it actually is:  the only known way to run a goddamned country.

Hence the rank impossibility of a comprehensive immigration deal—something that could be resolved in an hour if Democrats merely agreed to fund a wall along the Mexican border.  Hence the absence of a plan to strengthen Obamacare, which the GOP prefers to cripple out of spite than make work for its own constituents.

Our leaders would rather get nothing than give their opponents anything, and we are all living with the consequences.  It would be a terribly unfair quandary for this great country to find itself in, except for the pesky fact that every one of those representatives was democratically elected by us, the people.  This is what we wanted, folks, and the madness will continue until we choose—say, on November 6—to make it stop.

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.