Searching for Sister Souljah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darkness on the Edge of Town

On the evening of November 5, 1980, a 31-year-old rock ‘n’ roller in a sweaty white shirt stood at a microphone in Tempe, Arizona, and ominously intoned to a crowd of thousands, “I don’t know what you guys think about what happened last night, but I think it’s pretty frightening.”

With that, he launched into one of his signature fist-pounding anthems, whose opening lines declare:

Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland

Got a head-on collision smashin’ in my guts, man

I’m caught in a crossfire that I don’t understand

The man on the stage was Bruce Springsteen, and the previous day’s “what happened” was the election of Ronald Reagan as the 40th president of the United States.  The song, “Badlands,” was written and recorded two years prior, but its driving rhythm section and portentous lyrics seemed to capture the national mood as no other track could—at least among the American left.  It was as though Bruce had been saving it up for just the right moment.  As it turned out, the dawn of Reaganism was it.

Indeed, the prince of the Jersey Shore would spend the balance of the ensuing decade fortifying his reputation as an apostle of blue-collar America—the embodiment of the desperate, unwashed workingmen who felt betrayed and abandoned by their country and government in favor of the upper 1 percent.  In this milieu, the Reagan administration, with its tax-cutting, “trickle-down” economics, would, in short order, become Enemy No. 1.

From that concert in Tempe onward, Springsteen’s whole musical identity assumed a more political bent, his songs coming to reflect the times as much as the dreams and inner torment of the artist himself.  Where Bruce’s earlier work breezily spoke of young love on the boardwalk and hemi-powered drones screaming down the boulevard, by 1978 he was already losing faith in the institutions that had raised him—the government, the social compact, his family—and increasingly threaded this perceived societal drift into otherwise personal tales of love, hatred, anxiety and midnight drag racing.  (A typical lyric from that time:  “You’re born with nothing / and better off that way / soon as you’ve got something they send / someone to try and take it away.”)

Because this heightened social awareness and unease coincided with the Reagan Revolution—and also because of his open advocacy for such people as John Kerry, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—Springsteen has long (and rightly) been associated with the Democratic Party and its base.  So it came as something of a shock for me when I recently re-listened—for, say, the dozenth time—to Springsteen’s 1982 album, Nebraska, and found that, song-for-song—in some cases, like-for-line—the record seemed to speak directly to the plight of the prototypical Trump voter in 2016.  Contained in those tracks—and, by implication, in the mind of the man who wrote them—are most (if not all) of the fears, disappointments and anger that drove millions of bitter, hardworking citizens—many of whom voted for Obama twice—to turn to Donald Trump as the last best hope to save the soul of their beloved, beleaguered country.  In many ways, Springsteen’s Nebraska—35 years old in September—serves as their voice.

You could begin with the album’s title track, which recounts the (true) story of a Bonnie and Clyde-like duo who senselessly murdered their way across the Midwest in the 1950s, only to conclude, “They wanted to know why I did what I did / well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”  Immediately following is “Atlantic City”—a concert staple to this day—whose protagonist bemoans, “I got a job and tried to put my money away / but I got debts that no honest man can pay.”  Worse still, in “Johnny 99,” we learn, “They closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late that month / Ralph went out lookin’ for a job / but he couldn’t find none.”  And so forth.

What is most consistent, and ominous, in these tracks—today and in their original context—is how inexorably the weight of economic despair eventuates in violence.  Along with the aimless, homicidal couple in the opener (“Me and her went for a ride, sir / and ten innocent people died”), the man in “Atlantic City” is forced to join the mob to make ends meet (“Last night I met this guy / and I’m gonna do a little favor for him”), while Ralph, aka Johnny 99, knocks off a town clerk in a drunken rage, later pleading to a judge, “The bank was holdin’ my mortgage / and they were gonna take my house away / Now I ain’t sayin’ that makes me an innocent man / But it was more ‘n all this that put that gun in my hand.”

Indeed, experience teaches us that certain acts of violence spring purely from desperation, hunger and a general lack of good options in life, and the ordeal of the 2016 election did little to disabuse us of this notion.

To wit:  It is a matter of public record that the core of Donald Trump’s minions viewed themselves (rightly or wrongly) as the most economically stretched class of people in a generation—folks without jobs, prospects or any real political power—and that Trump’s campaign, in turn, was the most physically intimidating in modern times, with scores of campaign rallies descending into fist fights, the aggressors egged on by the candidate himself, who bellowed, “If you see somebody with a tomato, knock the crap out of them,” adding, “I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.”  (He didn’t, of course.)

Certainly nothing good can come from lashing out at your own society in such an ugly way.  Yet Nebraska does not look down on its characters when they commit despicable acts.  Bleak as it is, the album is fundamentally an exercise in empathy for those whose circumstances have led them to feel that a life of crime is the only choice they have left.  In their shoes, are we so sure that we wouldn’t behave the same way?

Encouragingly, perhaps, Springsteen himself has not changed his view on this one whit.  In an interview with Rolling Stone last October—during which he couldn’t summon a single positive word for the president-to-be—he posited, “I believe there’s a price being paid for not addressing the real cost of the deindustrialization and globalization that has occurred in the United States for the past 35, 40 years, and how it’s deeply affected people’s lives and deeply hurt people to where they want someone who says they have a solution.  And Trump’s thing is simple answers to very complex problems. […] And that can be very appealing.”  Asked if he is “surprised” to learn that the man who inspired his 1995 song “Youngstown”—an elegy to the American steel industry—is now a Trump supporter, Bruce responded, “Not really.”

Trump, he seems to agree, is what David Brooks once characterized as “the wrong answer to the right question.”

Which is all to say that Springsteen understood the American electorate in 2016 better than the Democratic Party—as, in their own way, did the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—and that unless the party makes a more honest reckoning with its relationship to America’s basket of deplorables, it will be quite some time before Democrats win back the House, the Senate, the presidency and the Supreme Court.

If you’ve lost Springsteen, you’ve lost America.

Crawl Space

In the event that Donald Trump is elected president on Tuesday, I will probably be too busy digging a hole to the center of the Earth to comment on the results in a timely fashion—and most of you will be too busy helping me dig to read it—so instead I will get ahead of the game and offer my reaction to a Trump victory now.

Well, we did it, America.  Presented with the opportunity to elect our first female commander-in-chief—something Iceland did 36 years ago and Ireland has done twice—we opted, instead, for a man who judges all women on a scale of 1 to 10 and has sexually assaulted at least 12 of them to date (allegedly).

Faced with a candidate who graced the White House and the Senate for eight years apiece and helmed the State Department for four, we selected for our president a callous, selfish, avaricious businessman whose entire public life has been a massive pyramid scheme for the benefit of exactly one person:  himself.

Offered the chance to anoint to America’s highest office a legendary policy wonk who understands legislative nuance the way Bill Belichick understands defensive strategy, we decided the best choice for Leader of the Free World is a guy who once held three different positions on abortion in a single afternoon and, from various public statements, is apparently unaware of at least three-fifths of the First Amendment.

I could go on—oh, how I could go on—but after spending a solid year and a half explaining how the very existence of Donald Trump stands as a permanent blot on the character of the United States—how he personifies literally every negative stereotype the world has ever dreamed up about the Greatest Country on Earth—I think we all feel a bit like Walter White lying in his basement crawl space, overwhelmed by an avalanche of failure and madness, finding there’s really nothing left to do except maniacally laugh ourselves into a state of blissful oblivion.

Through eight years of George W. Bush, our generation discovered there are consequences to making an incompetent dolt the most powerful person in America, and now—after an eight-year reprieve headlined by a brilliant, thoughtful, compassionate hipster—we are about to learn that lesson all over again.  Rock bottom, here we come.

However, rather than merely despair over what is unquestionably the most disgraceful and dangerous election result in the United States since at least 1972, I propose rounding up a search party for a set of silver linings—a collective glimmer of hope to get us through the darkness of the days and months ahead.

As we think more deeply about what good might come from the worst presidential candidate—and, in all likelihood, the worst president—of any of our lifetimes, here are a few shallow thoughts to tide us over between now and January 20.

  1. Trump could drop dead on a moment’s notice.

Notwithstanding Lewis Black’s axiom, “The good die young, but pricks live forever,” America’s president-elect is, after all, an overweight 70-year-old man who apparently eats nothing but fast food and considers public speaking his primary form of exercise.  Actuarially-speaking, the fact that Trump has lived this long is a goddamned miracle.  For him to somehow survive another four years would be the most persuasive evidence to date that God exists and has a rather twisted sense of humor.

Should Trump succumb to the massive heart attack that we all know is coming, the nation would then, of course, fall into the hands of Mike Pence—an ultra-conservative, scientifically illiterate homophobe who nonetheless possesses the ability to speak in complete sentences, understands the rudiments of legislative give-and-take and, most encouragingly of all, does not especially relish having to defend the rougher edges (i.e., the entirety) of Trump’s personality, meaning that once Trump is gone, President Pence would feel no particular responsibility to mold himself in Trump’s image for the sake of continuity.  As president, he would serve as a comparatively ordinary, across-the-board Republican who, for all his horrifying faults, would not pose an existential threat to global stability and constitutional law.

  1. In the election of 2020, the Democratic Party will boast its deepest and most youthful bench since, well, possibly ever.

Earlier this year, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni—as if to raise his own spirits—ran a story highlighting 14 up-and-coming Democratic elected officials under the age of 45—a concept totally alien to this year’s primary fight between a 68-year-old elder stateswoman and a cranky, 74-year-old socialist.  Bruni’s list is commendable, above all, for its sheer variety, boasting representatives of different races, ethnicities, sexualities and geographic origins—a clear and obvious contrast to the GOP’s stubbornly white, male complexion.

Needless to say, this group includes its fair share of women—as does the party as a whole.  (Among all the women in Congress, nearly three-quarters are Democrats.)  Indeed, to take even a casual look at the field of potential future presidents on the Democratic side is to realize how very silly it was to declare Hillary Clinton the one and only chance to have a female president in our lifetimes.  Surely by now we know better than to pin all of humanity’s hopes on a single human being.

Then again, perhaps not.

  1. The next four years will be a veritable golden age of piercing political satire.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that what is bad for America is great for the nation’s professional funny people, and the inherent comedic potential of a President Trump is as rich as it is bottomless.  As a man both obscenely powerful and profoundly clownish—and totally incapable of recognizing the latter—Trump will never cease being a walking, talking punch line for as long as America retains the right to free expression as a founding principle of our society—something that even Trump can’t completely stamp out.

What’s more, the very fact that Trump manifestly cannot take a joke at his own expense—let alone a string of vicious insults that he is all-too-willing to unleash upon others—means that every new public mockery of this eminently mockable creature will carry an added layer of danger and subversion—a sense that America’s court jesters are just one gag away from being rounded up in the middle of the night and shipped off to Guantanamo Bay.  The Daily Show ran an entire episode to that effect on Halloween night and—speaking of which—if the continued presence of Trump means the reemergence of Jon Stewart—in whatever guise he chooses—then the whole thing will have just about been worth it.

But that’s easy enough to say for an educated, non-Muslim white man who can pass for straight and lives in a magical place (Massachusetts) that guarantees health insurance regardless of whether Obamacare survives to fight another day.

For everyone else—women, religious and ethnic minorities, the poor, the uneducated, the unemployed and the uninsured—this is not a great day for America, and it will get a lot worse before it ever gets better.

But at least democracy itself prevailed.  The election was not rigged and there will be neither a month-long recount nor a coup d’état in its wake.  Trump won, America lost, but civilized society endures.  For now.

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.

Night and Day

If there is one thing I have learned for sure about Hillary Clinton, it’s that she is both better and worse than everyone seems to think.

Worse because of her ongoing paranoia, deceit and iron-fistedness vis-à-vis her quest for the Oval Office.

Better because of her wit, intelligence, compassion and jaw-dropping stamina as they relate to the exact same goal.

In the spring of 2008, I wrote an op-ed for my college newspaper in which I petulantly griped about how Hillary Clinton has a way of getting under your skin even as you find yourself agreeing with most of what she stands for.  How her single-mindedness and love-hate relationship with rules and facts tend to overshadow her finer qualities, even for those who are otherwise prepared to accept her as the standard-bearer for the Democratic Party.

Re-reading that article seven-and-a-half years later, I am somewhat alarmed by how well it holds up.  While my writing has matured (arguably), my hang-ups about a potential President Clinton Part II were pretty much exactly the same then as they are now.  They include:  Her penchant for making up stories when the truth is readily available for all to see; her brazen disregard for the rules whenever they are inconvenient; and her tendency, in any case, to exacerbate the little scandals that pop up whenever she is in power, invariably by blaming the whole thing on her would-be enemies, be they Republicans, foreign governments or a White House intern.

All of those quirks still apply, and must forever be held in consideration when one endorses Clinton for president or any other office.  As ever, a vote for Hillary is a vote for all the baggage that comes with her.  And that’s before we get into the issues that involve actual substance.  As the enduring success of Bernie Sanders demonstrates, there remains a great minority of Democratic primary voters who consider Clinton the wrong candidate at the wrong time and who, should she become the party’s nominee, might even stay home on Election Day rather than pull the lever for her.

Against all of that, however, I come bearing news:  Politics has changed a lot over the last two election cycles and we no longer have the luxury to vote only for candidates we like.  When and if we make it to November 8, 2016, most of us will be faced with two people whom we don’t particularly want to be president, but we’ll need to choose one of them all the same, because that’s how elections work.

I know:  This sounds like a “lesser of two evils” lecture.  It’s not, because presidential campaigns are not a choice between two evils.  Deciding to ally with Stalin against Hitler—that was a choice between two evils.  When we vote for a commander-in-chief, the decision is between not just individuals, but two opposing philosophies of how to run the government of the most important republic in the world.  There’s nothing evil about it, but the choice is stark nonetheless—now more than ever before.

If you think there is no meaningful difference between Republicans and Democrats, you’re not paying close enough attention.  If you’re unwilling to vote for either because their candidates just aren’t perfect enough, you’re a child and a fool.

Last Saturday’s Democratic debate drew only a fraction of the audience of any GOP contest this year.  That’s a real shame, because, if nothing else, it affirmed Bill Maher’s observation in 2008 that to see both parties talk, it’s as if they’re running for president of two completely different countries.

Case in point:  At the most recent Republican forum, you would be forgiven for thinking that 9/11 happened yesterday and that terrorism is the only thing worth caring about when it comes to the welfare of the United States and its citizens.  It was practically the only subject that came up, while such things as the economy, health care, infrastructure and even immigration received little more than a passing shout-out from any of the nine candidates.

The Dems spent plenty of time on terrorism, too—the San Bernardino massacre made it unavoidable—but they allocated equal, if not greater, emphasis on subjects that are—let’s be honest—considerably more urgent and germane to all of us at this moment in time.  Along with the issues I just mentioned, these included gun control, race relations, income inequality, college affordability and the fact that America’s prisons are overstuffed with people whose only “crime” was getting high and having a good time.

This isn’t your ordinary, run-of-the-mill disagreement over national priorities.  This is a dramatic, monumental clash over whether the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.  The whole GOP platform has been reduced to, “Be afraid all the time, because you could die at any moment,” while the Democrats act as if tomorrow might actually come and we might as well live and govern accordingly.

Is this the lowest bar we’ve ever set in the history of presidential elections?  Possibly.  Indeed, it’s downright depressing that the very act of governing is no longer seen as a given for anyone in public office.

What is far more depressing, however, is that so many citizens seem to think it doesn’t matter which party is in charge, or that both parties are equally at fault for all of the preventable problems that have occurred throughout the Obama era.  Neither of those assumptions is true, and there are tangible consequences to thinking otherwise.

Care for some examples?  Listen to the GOP’s own rhetoric:  If a Republican is elected president next year, it means the Affordable Care Act is in danger of actual repeal, as is the nuclear agreement with Iran.  It means reversing climate change is no longer a priority, along with the rights of black people, gay people, poor people, women, immigrants, Muslims and refugees.  It means the Supreme Court will net at least one conservative justice, which could easily lead to decisions adversely affecting all of the above and more.  It means our “war” against ISIS will almost certainly escalate to include actual boots in the sand, and God knows what impact that’ll have on our national debt (to the degree that anyone cares).

I realize, of course, that America’s conservatives would be thrilled by such results, but that’s not really who I’m talking to right now.

No, I would mostly just like to remind my fellow leftists that there is a limit to what your disgust with “establishment” Democrats like Hillary Clinton can accomplish.  Clinton is most certainly a flawed candidate, and a flawed messenger for the liberal view of good governance.  She is plainly compromised by her close relationship with the financial industry and remains insufficiently skeptical of large-scale military interventions in the Middle East.  She hasn’t yet mastered the art of damage control and offers little assurance that she won’t create more damage in the future.  A second Clinton presidency would guarantee a fair share of political nonsense from the day she arrives to the day she leaves.

Know what else it would guarantee?  Health insurance for tens of millions of people.  Funding for Planned Parenthood.  Increased protections for the LGBT contingent.  A more liberal Supreme Court.

And it would guarantee our first female commander-in-chief.  Sure, I know we’re supposed to be a meritocratic society that doesn’t care about race, sex, etc., but let’s not pretend that following our First Black President with our First Woman President wouldn’t be unimpeachably gratifying.  We already know beyond doubt that a woman can manage a country at least as well as a man—perhaps you noticed that, for the last 10 years, one such woman has been more or less running all of Europe—but wouldn’t it be great to have it actually happen here?

Of course, none of this matters during the primary phase of the campaign, where we are now.  So long as Democratic voters still have a legitimate choice between Clinton and Bernie Sanders (and, I suppose, Martin O’Malley), they have every obligation to argue about which option makes the most sense for where the party ought to be, and that choice is always a balance between ideological purity and perceived electability.  If you want Sanders as your nominee, you’d best make your case now, before it’s too late.  (I’ve already made mine.)

But should time run out and your preferred candidate lose, realize that our whole electoral system operates on the principle that the party is ultimately more important than any individual within it, which means a great number of people will be forced to compromise some of their deepest-held beliefs in the interest of party unity—because it’s better to support someone with whom you agree 60, 70 or 80 percent of the time rather than ensuring victory for someone with whom you agree not at all.

If total ideological alignment leads to total electoral defeat, then what good did those principles do you in the first place?  Republicans have been learning this lesson continuously since the moment President Obama was elected.  Are Democrats on the verge of making the same stupid mistake?

Springtime For Donald (and the GOP)

I don’t know why I didn’t see it before—perhaps it took a Hitler comparison to really hammer the point home—but I’ve found the perfect reference point for the bizarro performance art that is the Trump presidential campaign.  Indeed, it’s so obvious there’s really no way around it.

Donald Trump is The Producers come to life.

Y’all know The Producers.  A 1968 film and a 2001 musical, Mel Brooks’ masterpiece of lunacy is the story of a washed-up Broadway kingpin, Max Bialystock, who schemes to put on the most unwatchable, offensive Broadway musical ever produced—a show guaranteed to close in one night, enabling Bialystock to pocket his investors’ money without ever needing to pay it back.

As an elaborate act of fraud, this teeters on the edge between ingenious and completely nuts.  In any case, it shows real gumption on Bialystock’s part—a level of greed and hunger, at once spectacular and pathetic, of which we can only stand in awe.

You can probably see where I’m going with this.

Whenever any prominent public figure runs for high office, we more or less take it as read that he really means it—that he genuinely (if misguidedly) thinks he could win and is prepared to assume the awesome responsibilities of the office should he succeed.

We do not generally presume, for instance, that a quasi-serious presidential candidate would run for purely mercenary reasons—a drawn-out charade to make an extra few (million) bucks.  True, virtually all candidates tend to release a book upon entering the race—in America, there is always a profit to be made somewhere—but we nonetheless grant them their sincerity.  After all, considering what an epic headache the whole electoral process is, what kind of lunatic would dive in just for the hell of it?

A lunatic named Trump, that’s who.

Look:  None of us can prove that Donald Trump doesn’t take his own candidacy seriously and that his play for the White House is nothing more than a means of feeding his planet-sized ego before he ultimately tiptoes out the back door—say, a few hours prior to the Iowa caucuses.  Nor can we prove that he doesn’t actually give a damn about the wellbeing of the Republican Party or, for that matter, the country as a whole.  Or that he is, in fact, a secret Democratic Party mole who is actively sabotaging the GOP’s chances of ever winning another presidential election.

We don’t know any of these things for sure.  All we can say—and we might as well—is that if Donald Trump were a Democratic double agent sent in to destroy the GOP from within, the resulting blast would look almost exactly like what’s going on right now.

After all, this was supposed to be the year the Republican Party would make nice with various racial and ethnic minority groups.  The year the party’s mythical “big tent” would expand to include enough non-white voters to actually carry a national election in our increasingly non-white society.

This being the case, what better result could the Democrats hope for than a GOP standard-bearer who is so fanatically hostile towards those very folks—Hispanics and Muslims most of all—that he has undertaken a one-man crusade to literally banish them from the country?  A guy who has effectively taken one look at these potential electoral converts and said, “Go screw yourselves.”

It would all make perfect sense if Trump were a fictional character dreamed up in a laboratory at Democratic National Committee headquarters.  Or—more plausibly—if, like Max Bialystock, he were deliberately self-sabotaging as part of a ruse to reap maximum benefits while assuming minimal responsibility—that is, enjoying the perks of running for president without the complications of actually being president.

In any case, Trump is plainly a slow-motion catastrophe for the GOP, which brings us to the most Producers-like component of this whole ridiculous story:  The fact that Trump’s methods have managed to backfire in every conceivable way.  No matter how insane his candidacy becomes, he just can’t seem to lose.

In the Mel Brooks film, of course, the show that Bialystock and his accountant, Leo Bloom, decide to produce is a neo-Nazi valentine to the Third Reich by the name of Springtime for Hitler.  In New York City of all places—an oasis of liberalism, Judaism and highbrow artistic tastes—nothing could be more toxic than an unironic paean to the good old days of the SS and Aryan supremacy.

The punch line, then, is that Bialystock’s audience members—more jaded and sophisticated than he gives them credit for—take Springtime for Hitler as a big, bold farce and laugh themselves halfway into next week.  As a result, the show is a smashing success and Bialystock finds himself on the precipice of financial ruin.

Candidate Trump is certainly a farce in his own right—a galling, topsy-turvy perversion of reality with bottomless comedic potential—except that the foundation of his surprising success is precisely the opposite of Bialystock’s:  Trump is winning because his audience can’t see through the façade.  Even as his whole shtick is essentially an Onion article that’s gotten out of hand, his supporters take him deadly seriously and think his ideas about mass deportation and religious persecution are just swell.  The more outrageous his public statements become, the higher he rises in the polls.

It begs the question:  Is there not a limit to Trumpism, after all?  If his slurs against Mexicans, women, prisoners of war, the disabled and now Muslims have failed to do him in, is there anything that will?  What is left for him to say that could feasibly erode his evidently bulletproof base of support?

The Springtime for Hitler connection is apt:  If you behave vaguely like a fascist dictator and still can’t get your fans to hate you—all the while being explicitly compared to the Führer in the press and apparently not minding it—then the crazy train can no longer be routed back to the station.  It’s going over the bridge and into the ravine, and that’s all there is to it.

Back in July, the actual Onion ran a story titled, “Admit It:  You People Want To See How Far This Goes, Don’t You?”  At that point, Trump was still a novelty item whose popularity, however surprising, was nothing to get too alarmed about, because we knew that somebody in that field would put him in his place.

Now that all of those assurances about Trump’s eventual collapse have proved false—or at least supremely premature—we onlookers have little choice but to morbidly peek our eyes through our fingers until this horror show finally plays itself out.

While we can sleep easy knowing that both history and statistics show that a Trump nomination—let alone a Trump presidency—is the longest of long shots, we can plunge ourselves right back into panic and despair over the likelihood that, should Trump manage to shame and disgrace himself all the way to the White House, he, like us, won’t have the slightest idea how he got there.

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.