Buried Treasure

Today being December 22, it is still far too early in the year for me to come up with my ten favorite movies of 2017.  However, as I embark on the final stretch of my annual Oscar season binge, I offer a quintet of films from the past 12 months that the average viewer is likely to have missed but the smart, adventurous viewer will be gratified to have found.

PERSONAL SHOPPER

Nearly a decade since the Twilight series took America’s teenage girls by storm, who would’ve guessed that Kristen Stewart—known primarily for having had to choose for a lover between a vampire and a werewolf—would become one of the most hypnotic actresses in world cinema?  Yet here she is in Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper—a virtually unseen, low-budget thriller from last March—commanding our attention like few performers of her generation can, seemingly with no effort whatsoever.  Roger Ebert used to say the greatest actors were those who appear to do the least, and that’s Stewart here, playing a well-heeled personal assistant and spiritual medium desperately trying to communicate with her dead twin brother—a ghost with whom she shares a bond that, like the rest of the movie, is never fully explained and is all the more spellbinding as a result.  Available now on Showtime.

PATERSON

Officially a 2016 release, Jim Jarmusch’s characteristically quirky gem premiered in Boston at noon on January 20, and that’s exactly where I was when a certain real estate developer was being sworn in as America’s 45th commander-in-chief.  While the timing was mostly coincidental, Paterson proved the perfect antidote to the raging nihilism descending on Washington, D.C., at that time.  As Donald Trump bellowed about “American carnage” and the horrors of Muslims and migrants, here was a quiet little story about a municipal bus driver who spends his leisure time writing poetry and hanging out at the bar, silently pondering where his life might be headed.  It helps that he has an ebullient—and equally creative—wife (Golshifteh Farahani) waiting for him when he gets home—a reminder that love and marriage are less about material things than a shared commitment that transcends race, class and whether Brussels sprouts are a good thing to bake into a pie.

MAUDIE

Before Sally Hawkins took our breath away as a nonverbal janitor who befriends a mysterious sea monster in The Shape of Water, she proved equally captivating in this altogether different cinematic animal, directed by Aisling Walsh, about Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis.  Profoundly shy and afflicted by severe arthritis, Lewis is portrayed by Hawkins as an uncommonly generous, patient and heroic woman who navigates a difficult relationship with a cruel man (Ethan Hawke) through playful manipulation of his weaknesses and, eventually, the discovery of her remarkable—and financially lucrative—skills as a painter.  Like Paterson, Maudie is both the portrait of a marriage—in this case, a real one—and also a short treatise on creativity and the unlikely places it can be found.

THE FLORIDA PROJECT

It may seem facile to describe a movie about white people as “the Moonlight of 2017,” yet Sean Baker’s follow-up to 2015’s Tangerine nonetheless bears certain key similarities to last year’s surprise Oscar winner and achieves greatness for many of the same reasons.  Like Barry Jenkins’s film, The Florida Project burrows into a Sunshine State community that is often ignored—in this case, itinerant poor folks who hole up in cheap motels near Disney World for short periods of time—and luxuriates in the life, struggle, and humanity within.  While Moonlight followed its young protagonist, Chiron, through several stages of adolescence, the hero of The Florida Project—a sassy six-year-old named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince)—exists entirely in the present and functions as our eyes and ears through virtually every frame of this story.  By shooting the movie from Moonee’s point of view, Baker understands—as Harper Lee understood in 1960—that sometimes the best way to understand the difficulties of adulthood is by filtering them through the innocence of a child.

FACES PLACES

The French guerrilla artist who calls himself JR first came to my attention in the fall of 2015, when he plastered a giant photograph of a man on a diving board along the glass windows of Boston’s John Hancock Tower, roughly 500 feet above Copley Square.  No explanation was given; none was required.  In the years before and since, JR has been travelling the world in search of interesting people and, as in Boston, taking super-sized portraits of them for display in the most public possible spaces.  In this documentary, JR is joined on this quixotic journey by one Agnès Varda, an endlessly inquisitive 89-year-old film director who, along with Jean-Luc Godard, represents the last living remnant of the French New Wave of the 1950s and 1960s.  If this pairing doesn’t constitute the most delightful buddy comedy road trip of 2017, I don’t know what does.

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Rose’s Turn

If you’d asked me a week ago to list my 25 favorite Americans whom I haven’t personally met, Charlie Rose may well have been among them.  I have watched Rose’s eponymous PBS program regularly for the better part of a decade now, plowing through hundreds (if not thousands) of interviews with people from every imaginable walk of life—political leaders, filmmakers, musicians, authors, historians, scientists, businesspeople, fellow journalists—you name ’em, Charlie’s interviewed ’em—and I cannot conceive of my life as an active global citizen without having done so for so long.

In a media ecosystem that tends to value screaming over substance and certainty over wisdom, Rose has truly been a godsend, drawing out more knowledge and insight about the world around us than any other TV newsman in the last 25 years.  The Spartan set of his studio—a large round oak table surrounded by darkness—embodied the simple, unpretentious mission of Rose’s program:  To bring an understanding of a given issue to a wide audience through conversation between serious-minded individuals.  With the possible exception of C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb, he did this better than anybody in the business.

If you want a shorthand for how Rose comported himself in his job—and why it proved so darned engaging day in and day out—just imagine if Larry King had bothered to study up on his nightly guests more than ten minutes before the show began—and had he truly cared what they had to say once it did.

Like King, Rose was adept at the rare—and increasingly rarefied—art of allowing his guests to talk for extended periods without interruption and to take the conversation in any direction they chose.  Unlike King, Rose was unfailingly curious and well-read about whatever the topic at hand happened to be—indeed, he seldom if ever booked a guest to whom he showed indifference or dislike—and was equally in his element with Bashar al-Assad as he was with Amy Schumer.

Never content merely to plug some actor’s new movie or boost a rising senator’s presidential prospects, Rose always made his best effort to cut right to the heart of a question, probing his subjects about what truly drives them to do what they do:  What is it, precisely, that gets them out of bed in the morning?  What does success mean to them?  What have they learned from failure?  What makes them happy?  What, in short, is their own personal meaning of life?

Naturally, not everyone who came to Rose’s table was up to the challenge of having their souls plumbed for deeper meaning.  However, a great majority of them were—including many who tend to be reticent in other settings—and those interviews are treasures to behold, and are available for viewing in their entirety at CharlieRose.com, where I will continue to spend time on a fairly regular basis.

However, over the last week, a big fat asterisk has affixed itself to all that I have just written, following a devastating report in the Washington Post about Rose’s secret history of sexually abusing and intimidating at least eight different women in his employ—behavior that ranged from traipsing around hotel rooms in an open bathrobe to forcibly kissing and touching would-be romantic partners to angrily firing those who rejected his advances, potentially ending their careers as a result.

Indeed, from details in the Post story alone, Charlie Rose would seem to be the Harvey Weinstein of broadcast television—a perfect scumbag whose libido and sense of male entitlement are almost farcical in their reckless audacity.

Reading these women’s accounts in full—as I did when the story broke last Monday—felt very nearly like a personal betrayal.  Despite having never met the man, nor frankly known much about him beyond what he presented when the cameras were rolling, Rose had long struck me as a fundamentally decent and respectable elder statesman of news media—a true gentleman whom I could (and did) trust to present the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, about how the world really works—up to and including the problem of sexual assault in and out of the workplace.

That he, of all people, would turn out to be a Dirty Old Man who treats women as pure flesh and is so clueless about human nature that he had no idea of his predatory tendencies until he read about them in the Washington Post—well, it’s enough to make you wonder whether the Founding Fathers had it exactly backwards in granting full citizenship exclusively to landowning white men.  Whether, indeed, it might not be such a crazy idea to bar all men from positions of power until (to coin a phrase) we know what’s going on.

In any case, speaking as someone who can occasionally differentiate right from wrong, I understand why Charlie Rose will not—and should not—be allowed on television for a very long time, if ever, and that my continued viewing of old episodes of his show is, for the most part, indefensible.  For all the enjoyment his interviews have given me over the years—right up until last week, in fact—I accept that his fall from grace is a small price to pay for a society in which women’s job security and physical safety are not determined by the carnal urges of the men who sign their paychecks.

All the same, I cannot help but echo the reaction of Gayle King, Rose’s CBS This Morning co-host (along with Norah O’Donnell), who expressed an equal measure of disgust and sadness at the revelation that our boy Charlie is not the man we thought he was—that his periodic and rather creepy on-air flirting with female guests was a massive red flag that no one in authority was willing to see or do anything about.  As King explained to multiple outlets in the days after Rose was banished from CBS and PBS for good, one can be disgusted by behavior that is reprehensible and destructive while retaining a degree of affection for a person one has come to know and love and who, in his better moments, was undeniably charming and respectful to men and women alike.

The truth is that it is extraordinarily difficult to have your entire perception of another person negated in an instant and be able to adjust your loyalties accordingly.  As liberals are continually learning about Trump supporters—and as conservatives learned about many Obama voters before that—once you convince yourself of the inherent goodness of a given individual, it takes an awful lot of bad behavior on his or her part to alter your basic conclusion as to what kind of a person he or she truly is.  Once your initial opinion is established, confirmation bias kicks in and protects you from inconvenient information that might lead you to unattractive truths.

One solution to this conundrum is to be a lot more skeptical about your own assumptions, mindful of Mark Twain’s famous observation, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble:  It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Over the past year, there have been a great many things I knew for sure that were proved false by human events, not the least of which was the notion that a man who systematically—and openly—treats women horribly could never be elected president of the United States.  You’d think that fact alone would’ve steeled me against being surprised by anything ever again, and perhaps the truth about Charlie Rose will snap me out of my naïveté once and for all, just as the revelations about other celebrities have snapped other people out of theirs.

I just wish I could be more confident that I won’t be proved wrong about that, too.

The Moore You Know

What America giveth, America can also taketh away.

If the women (and sane men) of this country have been feeling pretty good lately about the swift and sudden accountability that has met certain prominent men accused of inappropriate—and, in many cases, felonious—sexual conduct over the years, that hopefulness is being severely tempered down south, where the good people of Alabama are about to send a pedophile to the U.S. Senate.

The pedophile in question is one Roy Moore, a former judge and religious fanatic who has twice been yanked from his courtroom perch after refusing to enforce laws he found personally inconvenient, and who has been known to publicly suggest (among other things) that 9/11 was divine retribution for America’s sins and that gay sex is “a crime against nature, an inherent evil, and an act so heinous that it defies one’s ability to describe it”—the latter suggesting more about the man’s internet viewing habits than he perhaps intended.

This being Alabama—the most religious state in the union, according to Pew—Moore’s strutting Christian authoritarianism had already made him the odds-on favorite in his state’s special Senate election on December 12.  However, now that Moore has been accused of sexual harassment and/or assault by no less than six women—most of whom were underage at the time—his victory against Democrat Doug Jones seems all but guaranteed.  Indeed, if the latest polling is any indication, Moore’s in-state popularity has only grown as the claims of sexual misconduct have piled up.

In an earlier era—say, 13 months ago—such a scenario would’ve seemed unthinkable in America—not to mention dangerous, appalling, depressing and grotesque.

Here in the penultimate month of 2017, the prospect of a known serial predator being elected to the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body is still dangerous, appalling, depressing and grotesque—but it is also just about the most thinkable thing in American politics.  Roy Moore will, in fact, be the next senator from Alabama, he will not be expelled by his 99 chamber mates when he arrives (contrary to rumor), and he will serve there at least until his first term expires in January 2021.

How do I know this?  Because I lived through all 366 miserable days of 2016—including the one involving the sentence, “Grab ’em by the pussy”—and I know history repeating itself when I see it.  If Donald Trump was the tragedy, Roy Moore is the farce.

One need not be a political scientist to notice the cascade of similarities between last year’s rise of Trump and this year’s rise of Moore:  Both entered their campaigns as objects of national ridicule and disgrace.  Both are known for irresponsible, inflammatory comments on divisive cultural issues and a general contempt for those with whom they disagree.  Both are profoundly immature and obsessed with maintaining their oh-so-fragile sense of alpha superiority.  Both have been able to parlay that über-masculinity into a Stalin-esque personality cult among their most loyal fans.  Both have become so convinced of their infallibility that they never, under any circumstances, admit any fault or assume any personal responsibility.

Finally—and, at the moment, most importantly—both Trump and Moore have been presented with credible evidence of having behaved criminally toward multiple women (at least 12, in Trump’s case), both have faced calls within their own party to drop out of their respective races (Trump after the Access Hollywood incident) and, in denying all accusations, both have flatly and defiantly pledged to fight on to the end, claiming they themselves—not their accusers—are the real victims in this story.

All that remains to be seen is whether lightning can strike twice—whether, for the second year in a row, an obviously and flamboyantly unqualified political candidate can stonewall his way to victory in the face of all common sense, potential criminal charges, and every law of political gravity.

Let’s not kid ourselves, folks:  If America can make a pussy-grabber president, Alabama can make a pedophile senator.

Laughing Into the Abyss

I spent the balance of October 2016 burning through all five seasons of Breaking Bad, so when the election returns rolled in on the night of November 8—with Donald Trump unexpectedly winning one critical swing state after another—the image that kept flashing across my mind was of Walter White in the Season 4 episode “Crawl Space”:  Huddled beneath the floorboards of his house, with the feds closing in on his drug empire and his wife having burned through all their cash, Walter screams out in agony, his body writhing and twitching with helpless abandon at the realization that his entire life has been a house of cards.  And then, without warning, his cries suddenly turn to laughter—cackling, maniacal laughter—as it dawns on him, with complete and terrifying clarity, that he is solely to blame for every misfortune that has befallen him, and that he is now, at long last, getting exactly what he deserves.

Cognitively-speaking, that’s roughly where I was by 11 o’clock on Election Night 2016:  Disgusted and horrified that my beloved country had chosen a thuggish, hormonal con man to be its chief executive and custodian of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal—but also perversely amused by the whole thing.  As it became plain that the most supposedly-unthinkable event in human history had come to pass—a result so shocking and senseless that no one on TV or online seemed to possess the vocabulary to explain it—I couldn’t help but suspect that, in some dark, elemental way, Trump’s victory was a signal that America’s chickens were finally coming home to roost.

They say sometimes you have to laugh because otherwise you’d cry, but every now and again it becomes necessary to do both simultaneously.  One year ago today, I was doing exactly that.  In some ways, I’ve never really stopped.

Indeed, among the major lessons I learned from the events of last fall was how deeply comedy and tragedy can become intertwined in the course of human events.  We’re all familiar with the axiom, “Comedy is tragedy plus time,” but the truth is that some tragedies are funny right off the bat, and the rise of Trump was most definitely one of them.

Recall, if you will, how the entire world spent the whole of 2016 (and the second half of 2015) in total agreement about exactly one fact:  Donald Trump could never—and would never—be elected president of the United States.  Virtually every pundit, historian and so-called “expert” on planet Earth repeated this same conclusion over and over and over again—as, for good measure, did every opinion poll and, obliquely, Donald Trump himself.  We spent months on end reflecting, with sadness, on the national moral decay that had allowed such an execrable man to be nominated by a major political party in the first place, but—with few exceptions—we remained convinced, to the bitter end, that the American political process—so brilliantly and meticulously conceived by our founders—would ultimately prevent such an unqualified and embarrassing candidate to rise to the highest office in the land.

It was classical hubris on everyone’s part, and when Trump won, it was like a punch line to a joke of which all of us were the butt.  In our stubborn certainty that we lived in a country too intelligent, decent and progressive to be seduced by a confessed sexual predator who had bankrupted four casinos, we never really accepted the possibility that we were wrong—that there was a cancer on the American character that had metastasized from one end of the continent to the other.

Maybe this is just my long-simmering exasperation with the pundit-industrial complex run amok, but there was something acutely pleasurable in seeing every professional prognosticator being made to look like a complete idiot—to find out that, when push came to shove, nobody knew a goddamned thing about the country they were living in and the electorate they had spent the past year-and-a-half profiling.  (In the final hours of the campaign, the Huffington Post gave Clinton a 98 percent chance of victory.  Meanwhile, Nate Silver, having set Clinton’s odds closer to 65 percent, was excoriated by liberals for “putting his thumb on the scale” for Trump.)

Equally troubling—and equally funny—is how after a full year of experiencing President (and, before that, President-elect) Trump on a 24/7 basis, so many on the left are still in denial about the ways in which the laws of political gravity do not apply to America’s 45th commander-in-chief.  How Trump can get away with things that no previous public servant could, and how sooner or later we’ll need to accommodate this fact rather than assuming it will magically go away.

To my mind, the most profound takeaway from last year’s election—and all that has transpired since—is the power of shamelessness as a form of political statecraft.  Beginning with Mitch McConnell’s unprecedented, disgraceful move to block President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee nearly a year before Obama’s term was up, America’s majority party—and Trump in particular—has abandoned any residual semblance of honor and chivalry it might’ve had left and replaced it with an ethos that says, “If it can be done, it shall be done.”

And to quote perhaps the most insightful tweet of the last 12 months—with apologies to Michelle Obama—“When they go low, they win.”

Where previous presidents would be embarrassed (and politically damaged) by suggesting, say, that not all Nazis are bad people or that pregnant war widows are liars, this president has so radically lowered the bar as to how a commander-in-chief ought to behave—and has so wholly owned that behavior as the main selling point of his “brand,” never apologizing, never admitting error—he has effectively neutralized every critique one could possibly level about both his character and his leadership style.  As far as the American public is concerned, he is who he is—take him or leave him.

On November 8, 2016, we took him, and there is every reason to assume we’ll take him again in 2020.

Why?  Because, as it turns out, Americans have a very twisted sense of humor, and so long as the Dow Jones is above sea level and the world hasn’t descended into nuclear war, we will accept just about anybody in the driver’s seat of Air Force One.

And when things inevitably turn south?  When the next financial bubble bursts or a hot war erupts in the Korean Peninsula?  When Trump’s sexual assault victims come out of the woodwork or Robert Mueller starts knocking on the Oval Office door?

Well, that’s when the real fun will begin.

Missing Mitt

Here’s a question for all you liberals out there:  Would you have voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 if you knew it would’ve prevented the rise of Donald Trump in 2016?

This scenario is hardly an idle fantasy.  Romney was, in fact, 2012’s Republican nominee for president, and, for a time, he had a real shot of defeating Barack Obama in his pursuit of a second term.  Indeed, Romney spent most of October of that year either leading or tied in the polls—a fact long forgotten by history—and had he succeeded in becoming America’s 45th commander-in-chief, it stands to reason that a certain New York real estate developer would not have run against him four years down the road.

Certainly, the emerging conventional wisdom about Donald Trump is that he jumped into the 2016 race—and is now governing—as a direct (and plainly racist) reaction to a black man having run the country for the last eight years.  In effect, Obama’s Obama-ness is the greatest—and often only—determining factor in how Trump makes big decisions.

In the absence of a two-term black president—and in the presence of Romney, arguably the whitest man who’s ever lived—Trump would’ve had no immediate, burning incentive to toss his red “MAGA” hat into the ring—particularly not as a primary challenger to a sitting Republican president, a feat of audacity that even Ronald Reagan couldn’t pull off in 1976.

In short:  No Obama second term, no Trump.  So I ask again:  Is that a trade you’d be willing to make?

Having ruminated on this for some days, I do not yet have a definitive answer to that question, and I wouldn’t trust any liberal who claims he or she does.  We might agree that Obama was exceptional and Trump is an abomination, but we have yet to fully assimilate how completely—and ironically—the latter is a product of the former:  How, by twice electing President Obama, we were unwittingly planting the seeds of a backlash whose damage will be the work of generations to clean up.

Will it have been worth it in the end?  Is President Trump a fair price to pay for President Obama?  When we look back on this era many decades from now, will we conclude that the benefits of Obama’s administration outweighed the horrors of Trump’s?

At this highly tentative juncture, the answer for many Americans (including this one) is unambiguously “yes.”  As a longtime member of the LGBT club, my life is certainly more promising now than it was four (and eight) years ago—as, I would wager, are the lives of most other social and ethnic minorities whose rights Obama steadfastly defended, along with pretty much anyone who enjoys such amenities as affordable healthcare and breathable air.  Even setting aside the profound historical significance of a black family occupying the White House, the Obama presidency was a truly unique and productive epoch in our history—a veritable golden age of progressive policy initiatives—that every liberal in America should be proud to have voted into existence twice.

Against Obama’s undeniable record of accomplishment—despite the near-comical degree of opposition every step of the way—I have found myself grappling with perhaps the most surprising political revelation of the last four years:

Mitt Romney was not that bad of a guy, and probably wouldn’t have made that bad of a president.

Maybe that sounds crazy, but think about it:  A reasonably successful former governor and businessman.  An intellectual sophisticate with an expansive vocabulary and two Harvard degrees.  A devoted husband and father without a whiff of personal scandal.  And perhaps most essential of all, given the times:  An even-tempered, rational empiricist who does not need a great struggle to see what is directly in front of his nose.

Say what you want about Romney—Lord knows I have—but as president he would not spend an entire week feuding with the wife of a fallen soldier.  He would not sully decades of friendship with key American allies by lambasting them at campaign rallies and on official Oval Office phone calls.  Nor, under any circumstances, would he put in a nice word for Nazis and Klansmen, nor conjure childish nicknames for every senator he doesn’t like and every journalist who asks him a probing question.

He would never do any of those things, because, at the end of the day, Mitt Romney is a well-adjusted adult who believes in liberal democratic norms and understands that the job of the president is to lead—and to lead by example.

To be clear:  I have not forgotten Romney’s many faults, and I still believe my vote for Obama in 2012 was the right one, given what we knew at the time.  I remember Romney’s appalling “faith speech” in 2007, in which he denounced secularism as antithetical to American values, when of course the exact opposite is the case.  I remember when he vowed to double the inmate population at Guantanamo Bay rather than shut the whole rotten place down.  And I certainly remember his knack for reversing virtually every major policy position he’d ever taken—almost always in the wrong direction—thereby feeding the assumption that his thirst for power overwhelmed any notion of honor or personal integrity.

And yet—having said all that—I’ve twice watched Greg Whiteley’s 2014 documentary Mitt, which follows Romney through both of his presidential campaigns, and I’ve twice been taken aback by the sheer whimsy, civility and introspectiveness of this most peculiar American political character.  (“I think I’m a flawed candidate,” he says at one point, surrounded by his entire family.)

What’s more, when it became evident, by late 2015, that Donald Trump posed a clear and present danger to the moral authority of the United States, Romney rose to the occasion like few Republicans have, even to this day.  His speech of March 3, 2016—in which he gingerly called Trump “a phony [and] a fraud” who was “playing the members of the American public for suckers”—remains the most direct, lucid and amusing indictment of the now-president by any major political figure over the last two years.  (Despite Trump’s claims to superior intelligence, Romney quipped, “he is very, very not smart.”)

None of which is to say that a Romney presidency would’ve been a pleasant one for liberals to endure, and of course had he been elected in 2012—thus erasing Trump from the equation—we wouldn’t understand or appreciate how much trouble we’d saved ourselves four years into the future and beyond, what with the space-time continuum operating as it does.

In truth, we are still a long way from comprehending the nature of the beast America uncaged last November 8.  Being so early into Trump’s tenure, we do not yet know precisely how bad things will get—how deep into the barrel this White House is prepared to sink—and how long it’ll take to bind up the nation’s wounds when this nightmare is finally over.

My ongoing hope—somewhat borne out by history—is that the Trump era will be short, aberrational and ultimately washed away by future presidents.  After all, if Trump believes—with some justification—that he can reverse one signature Obama decision after another through executive action, there is little reason to doubt Trump’s Democratic successors can’t—and won’t—reverse all or most of his, particularly once the congressional balance of power shifts back in their favor.

Without question, there will be a lot more pain before we ever reach that point, and it’s probable that some of the rot that Trump’s behavior has wrought upon America’s body politic will prove, like Watergate, to be a permanent blot on the national character and the presidency itself.

Broadly-speaking, there is no silver lining to Donald Trump being president except for the fact that one day he won’t be.  And while humans do not yet possess the ability to go back in time to prevent Category 5 calamities like him, my little Romney thought experiment should serve as a reminder that public servants are not all created equal and that the best way to avoid a terrible presidential candidate in the future is to do everything in one’s power to elect someone else.

Dancing With the Devil

Should we applaud the broken clock when it’s right two times a day?  What if that clock happens to be leader of the free world?

As a reasonably loyal and patriotic American, I would enjoy nothing more than to support the president—my president—in everything he says and does on behalf of the United States.  Believing, as I do, that America is ultimately one big family—albeit an absurdly diverse and dysfunctional one—I occasionally still cling to the fantasy that our leader, in addition to being the nation’s chief executive, can also serve as a sort of father figure:  A man of integrity, wisdom and resolve whom we can trust to do the right thing and respect even when he falls short.

In truth, of course, not every American president can be George Washington (including, arguably, George Washington).  More to the point, when it comes to public servants—particularly those with the nuclear football—skepticism should always take precedence over deference.  All humans are flawed—politicians triply so—and to invest total, uncritical loyalty in another person is a fool’s errand of the highest order.

And yet, every four-to-eight years, roughly half the country comes to Jesus on whomever the newly-elected commander-in-chief happens to be, defending his every action like it came directly from God.  Meanwhile, the other half—acting as a cosmic counterweight—grows to hate this man with the fire of a thousand suns, condemning his tiniest faults as the manifestation of pure evil, lamenting his very existence as a blight on the face of the free world.

The media calls this “polarization.”

While American politics has functioned in this sorry way since at least the days of Bill Clinton, it is beyond dispute that the electorate’s mutual antipathy has been ratcheted up to ludicrous speed with the rise of one Donald J. Trump.  To liberals like me who viewed Barack Obama as a leader who could do practically no wrong—a man of high intelligence, impeccable taste and the good sense not to invade foreign countries all willy-nilly—Trump comes across as someone who can do practically no right.

Indeed, the 45th president’s behavior has been so consistently appalling since the moment he took office, liberals (and many conservatives) have been able to march in lockstep in opposition to virtually every word that has spewed from his mouth and every executive order that has passed across his Oval Office desk.  From his anti-Muslim travel ban to his tacit endorsements of racism and police brutality, Trump appeared destined to fulfill Trevor Noah’s recent characterization of being “on the wrong side of everything in history”—an ugly caterpillar that will never, ever become a butterfly.

But then, on September 6, something funny happened:  Faced with a debt ceiling crisis and the prospect of a total government shutdown, Trump sat in a room with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi—the leading bogeyman and bogeywoman of the left—and cut a deal:  The government would stay open beyond September 30, without a requirement to fund a Mexican wall—this despite Trump’s earlier demand that he wouldn’t accept one without the other.

In other words, Trump did right when he could’ve easily done wrong.  He compromised when he could’ve stonewalled.  For perhaps the first time in his presidential life, he put the interests of the nation ahead of his own selfish need for dominance.

Sure:  Trump’s deal with “Chuck and Nancy” was a strictly short-term maneuver that, in all likelihood, was just a roundabout way of poking congressional Republicans in the collective eyeball for being such lousy collaborators since practically the first hour of his administration.

But so what?  The end result was the same:  The government could continue to function (I use that word loosely) while the president could rightfully take credit for reaching across the aisle and actually getting something done.

In effect, Trump’s budget deal was the silver lining that liberals long assumed didn’t exist:  Because he is beholden to no party or clique—because he has no moral center and cares about nothing but himself—Trump is prone, with some frequency, to act as an ideological free agent who is afraid neither of making friends of enemies nor enemies of friends.  While he used the GOP to win election and still formally identifies as a Republican, he is at heart a pure opportunist, prepared to work with anybody—on any side of any issue—so long as he comes out looking victorious in the end.

So it was, for instance, that just days after announcing the supposed end to the DACA program—the Obama-era law protecting children of illegal immigrants that, as it turns out, is far more popular than the president realized—Trump abruptly tweeted, “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military? Really!…..”

Elizabeth Warren couldn’t have said it better, and to hear those words from Donald Trump—Donald Trump!—is proof positive that our 45th president is someone whom Democrats can work with, after all.  Someone whom we, as a people, can occasionally be proud to have put in charge.

I know what you’re thinking:  I’ve lost my goddamned mind.  As he has proved in a thousand-and-one different ways, Donald Trump is a liar, a con man, a racist and a thug—not to mention a sociopath and malignant narcissist with zero capacity for basic human empathy.

All of that is true—and always will be true—but you know what else he is?  The president of the United States.  He is the most powerful human being on planet Earth, and the awesome reach of his power is not lessened one iota by the profound magnitude of his awfulness.

In their frothing, maniacal hatred of all that Trump represents, many liberals have forgotten—or rejected—the idea that you can negotiate with someone whom you detest, and they have accused people like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi—architects of the budget agreement—of selling their party down the river in the name of fleeting bipartisanship.

The fear, one assumes, is that cutting a deal with Trump is a slippery slope to “normalizing” him, and once Trump is accepted as a backroom politician like any other, the nation will have irretrievably lost its soul (and possibly also its healthcare).

The problem with this theory is that Trump is, in fact, a broken clock:  He is absolutely wrong at least 95 percent of the time, but that still leaves 5 percent in which he lives up to his billing as the guy who speaks truths that few other public officials ever have.  (The truth, for instance, that legislators are bought off by billionaires like Trump, or that globalization has had negative consequences for certain subsets of American workers.)

The conventional wisdom about Trump—largely true—is that his beliefs are shaped by the last person he speaks with—hence the pro-DACA tweet shortly after his meeting with Schumer and Pelosi—and there is real validity to the notion that his presidency remains a hunk of wet clay whose final form will be determined by whichever adviser—or whichever party—has the more nimble hands.

Don’t forget:  This is a man who has switched political parties at least five times in his adult life.  Are we so sure that he won’t do it again sometime in the next three years?  Shouldn’t the Democrats have a contingency plan in the event that the Donald decides the GOP is no longer his cup of tea?

In any case, for Team Never Trump—a group that only grows larger with time—I would recommend an old Lenin adage:  Keep your heart on fire and your brain on ice.  By all means, condemn President Trump as the wretched piece of orange excrement that he oh-so-obviously is.  However, do not allow your contempt for him to so warp your perspective that you can no longer recognize the moments (rare as they are) when he actually behaves well.

Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the bad.  If you do, things will only get worse from there.

Trump may not be your president, but he is the president, and you owe it to your country and yourself to push him in the right direction whenever the opportunity presents itself.  You might be surprised how good it’ll feel when you succeed.

Stop Punching People in the Face

Leave it to America’s far left to make fighting Nazis seem unreasonable.

This past Saturday, my hometown of Boston, Mass., became a focal point in the racial and political unrest that has seized the nation since the deadly white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., the previous weekend.  In the City of Beans, a gang of similarly-minded individuals planned to hold a “free speech rally” on Boston Common—speech that presumably would include incitements to racial and anti-Semitic violence, à la Charlottesville.

In response, city residents mounted what could only be described as an overwhelming show of counter-force:  a phalanx of 40,000 sign-wielding liberals who marched two miles from Roxbury to the Common in a concerted effort to demonstrate just how undesirable racism has become in this increasingly welcoming New England town.

Of those 40,000 people, 33 were arrested for disorderly conduct such as throwing rocks and bottles at police and instigating scuffles with those they deemed to be their mortal enemies—i.e., Nazis, Klansmen and the like.

In such a contentious, emotionally-wrought environment, 33 arrests might seem like small potatoes—a negligible amount of hooliganism in an otherwise respectful and orderly exercise of free assembly in an uncertain time.

Indeed, it would be an impressively small figure, except for one thing:  There were virtually no white supremacists on Boston Common that day.

Yes:  Initially, several representatives of America’s leading neo-Nazi groups—including those who appeared in Charlottesville—were slotted to speak at the Common’s Parkman Bandstand on Saturday.  However, because the blowback to this event was so ferocious—on the part of both ordinary citizens and the city’s mayor and chief of police—nearly all of the most contemptible and poisonous of these genocidal thugs opted to get the hell out of town before the thing ever really got off the ground.

What remained of this “free speech rally,” then, was a disparate, minuscule and heavily cordoned-off collection of libertarian weirdos whose unifying purpose seemed to be nothing more concrete than to celebrate the right to gather in a public park and make an unholy spectacle of yourself.  Among the few who actually spoke (not that anyone could hear them) were an Indian-American entrepreneur running for U.S. Senate in 2018, along with the deaconess of a Rhode Island religious sect whose rituals include smoking cannabis through a giant ram’s horn.

There were no Confederate battle flags.  No Nazi salutes.  No tiki torches.  No “Jews will not replace us.”  No nothing.

In short—and to the world’s great relief—Boston was not Charlottesville.  Not by a long shot.  And yet, by their conduct, certain members of the heaving counter-protest seemed determined to believe that it was, and that the men and women squeezed into the Parkman Bandstand—some of whom carried rainbow flags and signs reading “Black Lives DO Matter”—were an existential threat to liberal democracy and deserving of the maximal abuse one can inflict in broad daylight while surrounded by Boston’s finest.

The result—as seen on TV—was that a handful of hapless white men in red caps—some of them undoubtedly scared out of their wits—were pushed, shoved, screamed at and put in such danger of serious bodily harm that they required a police escort back to their vehicles or some other private space.  Indeed, without all those cops standing nearby, there is little doubt the scene would’ve turned real ugly, real fast.

This will not stand, my friends.  This aggression will not stand.

If combating racism is to be the great mission of the Resistance under Donald Trump—and why on Earth shouldn’t it be?—we must follow the example of the 39,967 who did not cause trouble in Boston, while robustly condemning the 33 who couldn’t summon the willpower to act like normal members of society.

Don’t ever forget:  The whole point of opposing white supremacy is that violence, hatred and intimidation are intrinsically harmful to democracy and all human relations.  Accordingly, the anti-fascist left cannot become associated—even for a moment—with violence, hatred and intimidation.  If we want history to view us as the good guys in this fight, we need to earn that distinction by behaving better than our opponents.  We cannot allow ourselves to sink to their level.

In his insane press conference last Tuesday, Donald Trump attempted to draw a moral equivalence between white supremacists and those who resist them, suggesting that the “alt-left” can be just as intolerant and thuggish as the alt-right.  Well, guess what:  Every time a member of our team does something stupid—such as punching a Trump supporter in the face—we make Trump’s point for him.  And every time we tacitly (if not openly) cheer that stupidity on, we become complicit in fostering the type of culture that we claim to find un-American and repulsive.

Is that what we want?  To prove that Nazis are only slightly less respectable than we are?  With the future of Western civilization at stake, I think we ought to aim a bit higher than that.

Repeat after me:  Nothing good can ever come from violence.  Being officially opposed to fascism does not entitle you to employ fascistic tactics to achieve desired ends, and there is nothing more fascistic than threatening physical harm upon those with whom you disagree—up to and including those who ruddy well deserve it.

To that end, our challenge today is to not permit the cause of anti-fascism to be defined by the group that has made a portmanteau of that very term:  “Antifa.”  New to the American vernacular, but in fact derived from European agitators in the 1930s, Antifa—a loose confederation of quasi-anarchists, helpfully profiled in this month’s Atlantic—defines itself in explicitly confrontational and often violent terms, and seems interested not in winning the understanding of its enemies but in beating them into submission.  You know:  Just like Nazis.

This is not the way to win the moral high ground, folks.  And it sure ain’t the way to win elections.

Equally dangerous—and equally worth underlining—is the left’s abandonment of all subtlety and nuance in the name of effecting a more multicultural world.  If there is any lesson we should draw from the protests in Boston, it’s to resist the urge to accuse anyone we don’t like as a card-carrying racist or anti-Semite.  While it’s apparently true that every Nazi and Klansman in America is an enthusiastic Trump supporter, not every Trump supporter is a Nazi or Klansman—nor, indeed, is every conservative or libertarian a Trump supporter in any way, shape or form.

Every time we liberals aggressively assume otherwise—as practically everyone in Boston did, despite ample evidence to the contrary, both before and after the fact—we turn ourselves into the hysterical, intolerant caricatures that the alt-right suspects we’ve always been, making it that much more difficult to change hearts and minds or be taken seriously by those who are skeptical of our true motives.

As I watched the scene on Boston Common—crisply described by Matt Taibbi on Twitter as “basically thirty people or so surrounded by the whole city of Boston”—I understood why conservatives feel under siege by a culture that doesn’t seem to care what they think.  The way counter-protesters dismissed the very idea of a rally that welcomed unpopular opinions—the way Police Commissioner Bill Evans carelessly remarked, “Their message isn’t what we want to hear”—it’s no wonder the alt-right has come to label us all as “snowflakes” who cannot handle the open airing of competing views in the public square.

Having been on the winning side of virtually every battle in America’s ongoing culture war, it is not necessary for liberals to tar and feather every person on Earth who might possibly speak—or think—an unwelcome idea.  Witch hunts should be limited to when there are actual witches on site—as there were in Charlottesville last week, and as there is in the Oval Office right now—and when they occur, they should be conducted by the forces of reason, restraint and truth, and not by Antifa, which traffics in bullying, propaganda and sometimes even death.

There is nothing to be gained by playing as dirty—or even one-tenth as dirty—as the darkest forces that have ever bestrode the face of America.  Morally-speaking, standing toe-to-toe against literal Nazis is the easiest battle any of us will ever be required to wage, and we would do well always to remember the wise man who famously cautioned, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

This is our moment to prove that we leftists really are on the right side of history, and with modern-day Klansmen on the march and a racial arsonist in the White House, there is absolutely no margin for error.

This is not a drill, people.  We have to get this one right.