All That Is Written

“All that is thought should not be said, all that is said should not be written, all that is written should not be published, and all that is published should not be read.”

Those words were coined by a Polish rabbi named Menachem Mendel of Kotz in the middle of the 19th century.  Surely they have never been more urgently needed than in the United States in 2019.

Just the other day, for instance, the venerable Boston Globe published an online op-ed by Luke O’Neil, a freelance columnist, expressing his rather pointed thoughts about the recently-sacked homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen.  Its throat-clearing opening line:  “One of the biggest regrets of my life is not pissing in Bill Kristol’s salmon.”  (Kristol, you’ll recall, was a leading cheerleader for the Iraq War.)

The rest of the column continued in the same vein, castigating Nielsen for her complicity in President Trump’s policy of separating children from their parents at the Mexican border, and advocating for a general shunning of Nielsen from polite society, up to and including doing unsavory things to her food whenever she turns up at a fancy restaurant.

Following a small uproar among its readers, the Globe subsequently re-wrote parts of O’Neil’s piece—cutting out the word “pissing,” among other things—before ultimately removing it from its webpages entirely.  (It never appeared in print in any form.)  All that currently remains of the thing is an editor’s note explaining that the column “did not receive sufficient editorial oversight and did not meet Globe standards,” adding, rather gratuitously, “O’Neil is not on staff.”

Locally, much has been said and written about the Globe’s (lack of) judgment in ever believing an op-ed about poisoning a public official’s dinner—however cheeky—was fit to publish in the first place.  For all of its obvious liberal biases, the Globe opinion page is a fundamentally grown-up, establishmentarian space, suggesting this episode was a bizarre, one-off aberration and nothing more.

The deeper question, however, is what brings an uncommonly thoughtful and clever writer to put such infantile thoughts to paper in the first place.

And I’m not just talking about Luke O’Neil.

Let’s not delude ourselves:  Ever since Secretary Nielsen was hounded from a Mexican restaurant last summer in response to her department’s repugnant immigration policies, every liberal in America has had a moment of silent contemplation about what he or she would do or say to Nielsen given the chance.  That’s to say nothing of her former boss, the president, and innumerable other members of this wretched administration.

Indeed, plumb the deepest, darkest thoughts of your average politically-aware American consumer, and you’re bound to emerge so covered in sludge that you may spend the rest of your life trying to wash it off.

This is why we differentiate thoughts from actions—morally and legally—and why the concept of “thought crime” is so inherently problematic.  Outside of the confessional, no one truly cares what goes on inside your own head so long as it remains there, and most of us have the good sense to understand which thoughts are worth expressing and which are not.

Except when we don’t, and in the age of Trump—with a major assist from social media platforms whose names I needn’t mention—an increasing number of us don’t.

Because it is now possible for any of us to instantaneously broadcast our basest and most uninformed impressions on any subject to the entire world, we have collectively decided—however implicitly—that there needn’t be any filter between one’s mind and one’s keyboard, and that no opinion is more or less valid than any other.  In the Twitterverse, “Let’s expand health insurance coverage” and “Let’s defecate in Kirstjen Nielsen’s salad” carry equal intellectual weight.

As a free speech near-absolutist, I can’t deny the perverse appeal in having no meaningful restrictions to what one can say in the public square.  With political correctness exploding like a cannonball from America’s ideological extremes, it’s heartening to know that reports of the death of the First Amendment have been greatly exaggerated, indeed.

Or it would be—until, say, a newly-elected congresswoman from Minnesota tells a group of supporters, “We’re gonna go in there and we’re gonna impeach the motherfucker,” and suddenly discretion seems very much the better part of valor.

Among the many truisms that life under the Trump regime has clarified is the fact that just because something can be done, it doesn’t mean it should be done.  And the same is true—or ought to be—about how each of us expresses ourselves to the wider world.

I don’t mean to sound like a total prude.  After all, I’m the guy who wrote a column in mid-November 2016 calling the newly-elected president a selfish, narcissistic, vindictive prick, and who tried to cheer my readers up the day after the election by noting that Trump could drop dead on a moment’s notice.

With two-and-a-half years of hindsight, I’m not sure I should’ve written either of those things, not to mention a few other snide clauses and ironic asides here and there ever since.  They weren’t necessary to make my larger points, and like the opening quip in Luke O’Neil’s Globe column, their rank immaturity and meanness only served to cheapen whatever it was I was trying to say.

As someone who claims to be a writer, I try to choose my words carefully and with at least a small degree of charity.  With great powerin this case, the power of wordscomes great responsibility.  And that includes leaving Kirstjen Nielsen’s salmon alone.

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Biden His Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answer:  Obviously yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answer:  Zero.

Mueller Lite

Last Sunday at around 4 o’clock, millions of liberals across America were beside themselves—inconsolable!—upon learning that the president of the United States isn’t an agent of a foreign power.  Having invested nearly two years of their lives and all of their emotional bandwidth into the assumption that Donald Trump and his gang conspired with the Russian government to rig the 2016 presidential election—and that the Mueller investigation would eventually prove it beyond doubt—it was positively devastating to be informed by Robert Mueller himself—albeit through his boss, Attorney General William Barr—that this just isn’t so.

As a lifelong fan of Alfred Hitchcock, I couldn’t help thinking of Rear Window.  Specifically, the scene in which James Stewart and Grace Kelly—having spent days doggedly surmising that the salesman across the courtyard has murdered his wife and chopped her body into bite-size pieces—are provided with seemingly airtight evidence from an investigator that the neighbor has done no such thing.  That, in fact, Stewart and Kelly have let their imaginations get the better of them, and that it’s all a silly, if brutal, misunderstanding.

Cut to Stewart’s and Kelly’s crestfallen visages, each overcome with disappointment and just the slightest bit pissed off about the whole bloody affair.

It’s a priceless moment, written and acted to perfection, and encapsulated, a few beats later, by the future princess of Monaco herself:

“If anybody walked in here, I don’t think they’d believe what they see.  You and me with long faces, plunged into despair, because we find out that a man didn’t kill his wife.  We’re two of the most frightening ghouls I’ve ever known.”

The joke, of course, is that Stewart and Kelly had wrapped themselves so tightly in their paranoid theories about what sinister things the neighbors have been up to—and had so convinced themselves that their worst suspicions must be true—they came to view any penetrating of their conspiratorial bubble as a personal insult and humiliation.  Their amateur sleuthing had morphed into a religious cult, and any outside information that challenged it amounted to blasphemy.

Hence the black comedy buried in Kelly’s quip:  In their idle, wild-eyed fervor, she and Stewart had come to believe that their neighbor being a murderer was preferable to their being proved foolish and irresponsible.  In that moment, being right was more important than the salesman’s wife being alive and in one piece.

Such is the dilemma now facing the American left, which must choose between two possible realities:  One in which new, unwelcome information takes precedence over comforting, unfounded speculation, or one in which the president is a traitor to his country and the MSNBC primetime lineup is a fount of divine truth.

Prior to last Sunday, liberals like me had been perfectly content to live in the latter universe, much as conservatives spent the balance of 2009-2016 in a Fox News echo chamber of rage wherein President Obama was a secret Muslim, Hillary Clinton was a secret murderer and Benghazi was the biggest scandal in the history of the human race.

But what about now?  With the news—however preliminary—that our darkest imaginings about Trump are, well, imaginary, are we not duty-bound to accept this most inconvenient of truths and move on to 2020?

I’ll say this much:  Throughout the 2016 election, I rarely went more than 24 hours without checking in on the Huffington Post, the addictive left-wing blogging platform that framed every utterance from Trump’s mouth as a Category 5 emergency and gave Hillary Clinton a 99 percent chance of victory in the days leading up to the big vote.

I haven’t been back to the Huffington Post once since November 9, 2016, and it’s for the exact reason you’d expect:  At long last, and with a great deal of reflection, I decided I no longer enjoyed the taste of Kool-Aid.

Don’t get me wrong:  Today I am still very much a liberal and still very much consider Donald Trump a cancer on the face of America, for reasons Robert Mueller had no need to investigate.

What I am not—or so I would like to think—is a mindless, obstinate rube who clings to demonstrable falsities simply because I want them to be true.  While I still watch MSNBC on a regular basis, I generally limit my consumption to one hour of programming per day, and always with the understanding that comfort food is not the same as nutrition and restless chatter is not the same as insight.

I suggest my fellow anti-Trumpers do the same, and put Collusiongate in the rear window, where it belongs.

A Fish Called Donald

President Trump has been called many things and compared to many types of people during his two-plus years in office:  An autocrat.  A dictator.  A mob boss.  A con man.

Lately, however, the figure that most comes to mind—if only to me—is Otto West, the character played by Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda.  You remember Otto:  The hapless, unscrupulous jewel thief who marches around London telling everyone he meets, “Don’t ever call me stupid!”

The joke, of course, is that Otto is, in fact, a complete and spectacular ignoramus—albeit an uncommonly devious and pretentious one—thereby rendering his incessant protests to the contrary both ironic and self-defeating, as is eventually spelled out in an exasperated monologue by Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis), who bellows, “To call you stupid would be an insult to stupid people.”

Like Otto, America’s 45th president invests an awful lot of stock in the notion that—despite all evidence to the contrary—he is an acutely intelligent individual, and he wants to make sure everyone in America knows it.  Whether through his tweets about being “a very stable genius” or his challenges to an IQ-off against various congresspersons and, on occasion, his own cabinet secretaries, Trump seems abnormally preoccupied with asserting that he is the smartest person in the room, if not the country.

In doing this, Trump seems to imply that being exceptionally smart is part and parcel of his overall brand—along with being exceptionally rich and exceptionally sexually desirable—and, by implication, that were he to be shown to be not quite as sharp as he presents, his entire sense of self would dissolve into a billion tiny, stupid pieces.

Over time—as with our friend Otto—Trump’s profound insecurity about his own brainpower has produced one priceless moment of hilarity after another, the most recent—and arguably most illustrative—having emerged in the testimony of Michael Cohen, Trump’s estranged lawyer, before the House Oversight Committee on February 27.

In his opening statement, Cohen revealed (with documentation!) how in 2015 Trump’s legal team sent threatening letters to Fordham, the University of Pennsylvania and the College Board, forbidding them from disclosing Trump’s grades and SAT scores to the public—something that institutions of higher learning are legally prohibited from doing without the student’s permission.

It has been duly noted that this unnecessarily proactive attempt to conceal Trump’s grades occurred not so long after the very same Donald Trump loudly demanded the release of then-President Barack Obama’s own college transcripts—a hypocrisy so transparent we need not spell it out here.

The obvious question that arises, of course, is:  How damning could Trump’s transcripts possibly be that he would enlist a team of lawyers to ensure they never see the light of day?

The obvious (if elliptical) answer is that vain men tend not to withhold information that makes them look good.  As with his tax returns, Trump’s decision to treat his school records as a top-level state secret leads us to the inescapable conclusion that he must have something rather embarrassing to hide.

What should most concern us about this particular deception—beyond the deception itself, that is—is why Trump is so sensitive about IQ and test scores in the first place.

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t thought about my college GPA more than a handful of times since I graduated nine years ago.  What’s more, while I attended a perfectly respectable university and enjoyed most of my time there, I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned its name except when asked—nor do I make a habit of announcing how clever and educated I supposedly am in order to make myself feel superior to the other people in the room.

Isn’t that something only a sociopath would do?

And yet here we are, digesting the details of a massive fraud perpetrated by excessively wealthy parents to shoehorn their deadbeat kids into über-selective colleges and universities they never would’ve gotten into on their own.  Because as far as those parents are concerned, life is meaningless unless it’s spent in the rarified company of America’s academic elitewhether one belongs there or not.

Donald Trump is a product of this nauseating mindset, and we have all been living with the consequences ever since.

Christopher Hitchens used to say that what annoyed him about certain religious folk was their rather aggressive tendency to proselytize.  It wasn’t enough that they believed in the gospel; you needed to believe in it, too.

Such is Donald Trump’s relationship with his “very, very big brain”:  He can’t be content with his alleged smartness until every last person in America is made aware of the good news.

You can call him insecure.  You can call him delusional.  But whatever you do, don’t call him stupid.

The Bernie Conundrum

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

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

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

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

And yet…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think Big

There’s a Greek adage—since become an American cliché—concerning the difference between a fox and a hedgehog:  “A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.”

If the Democratic Party wants to reclaim the White House in 2020, it would do well to nominate a hedgehog.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton ran for president as a fox—someone who had walked the halls of power for decades and seemingly knew everything about everything.  As a consequence—because she attempted to address every issue all at once, to be all things to all people—she came across as a woman who believed in nothing in particular other than becoming president.

By contrast, her opponent—one Donald J. Trump—ran as the know-nothing charlatan that he is—a man of appalling incuriosity and ignorance about the world around him—yet nonetheless captured a majority of the Electoral College on the strength of a single, clear and consistent message:  “I will make brown people go away.”  (In time, this would be shortened to “Make America Great Again.”)

If you want to know the story of the 2016 campaign, it’s that the candidate who knew many things was defeated by the candidate who knew (or at least said) one big thing.  My advice to the Democrats’ eventual nominee next year:  Find one big thing on which to campaign, and stick with it.

For all his bumbling and rambling in his official duties as chief executive, Donald Trump understands the power in establishing a singular, unified worldview and funneling all of his major declarations and acts toward the implementation thereof. 

Trump may careen incoherently from one policy bungle to another—ever on the defensive against a media-industrial complex that he views as an existential threat to his presidency—but his One Big Idea has remained the same:  That is, the notion that America has been taken advantage of for decades by its counterparts in Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East—economically and militarily—and it’s high time the United States stand up for itself by withdrawing most of its troops, tearing up most of its treaties and, of course, building a Big Beautiful Wall on the border with its neighbors to the south.

We can argue about the wisdom of the 21st century’s leading superpower effectively withdrawing from the world stage to tend to its own private concerns—and, indeed, about whether such a thing is even possible—but we can’t deny the elemental appeal of a commander-in-chief who knows exactly what he wants for his country—particularly regarding its foreign policy—and is unrelenting in his desire to effectuate it, up to and including when public support turns against him.

Obviously, Trump’s bluster on this front has far outpaced his capacity for generating results—as would be expected of a loud-mouthed businessman who once managed to bankrupt a casino.

Nonetheless, there is little doubt that Trump’s singlemindedness about isolating the United States from the global community scratched a primal itch in millions of voters who wanted to send an angry message to Washington, D.C., and who regard Trump as a faithful vessel for their (self-)righteous ire.  His stick-to-itiveness vis-à-vis “America first!” carried him over the finish line on November 8, 2016, and is the one thing guaranteeing that 30-odd percent of the electorate will never, ever leave his side.  In the broadest possible sense, they always know where he stands and, rightly or wrongly, they believe he stands with them.

In 2020—as in 2018—it will be the left’s turn to vent its outrage at the incumbent administration and chart its own course forward, and the worst the Democrats could possibly do is to nominate a candidate who is timid and circumspect about saying what he or she truly believes—or worse, who says too much about too many different things, resulting in a muddled message that does nothing to inspire those who yearn to be inspired—as perhaps they haven’t been since the “Yes We Can” days of 2008.

Among the more amusing side stories from 2016 was that, in preparing for the general election, Hillary Clinton and her aides entertained at least 84 possible slogans before ultimately settling on “Stronger Together”—a fact that illustrates both how seriously the campaign took the concept of self-branding and how woefully unfocused the whole operation was, thematically-speaking.  For all her experience and expertise as a public official, Hillary could never quite explain why she, of all people, should be president of the United States—particularly not in an easy-to-remember phrase that could fit easily on a bumper sticker or a red hat.

It all comes down to the elemental question, “Why do you want to be president?”  Ted Kennedy famously couldn’t summon a coherent answer in 1980, effectively strangling his own insurgent candidacy in its crib.  In truth, very few candidates in the intervening decades have done much better, typically using the query as an opportunity for a vague laundry list of issues rather than a sweeping declaration of principle.

It shouldn’t be too much to ask that a person who presumes to become the most powerful human being on Earth at least pretend to believe in something beyond personal wish-fulfillment.  As no less than Richard Nixon observed, those who run for high office can be divided into two groups:  Those who want to do big things, and those who want to be big people.  Of course, the former can (and generally does) lead to the latter.  Wouldn’t it be nice if America’s next president understood that it doesn’t work the other way around?

Let’s Never Do That Again

The U.S. government shut down on December 22 because Ann Coulter called Donald Trump a pussy.  It remained closed for 35 days—depriving 800,000 federal workers of their paychecks—because various right-wing pundits mused that capitulating to Nancy Pelosi would constitute the end of Trump’s presidency as we know it.  And when America’s long national nightmare finally ended on Friday evening—without any particular resolution—the president assured the nation that unless he can claim victory by February 15, he’ll be happy to close the government all over again.

Specifically, Trump opted to bring one-quarter of the federal labor force to a screeching halt because of The Wall—namely, the one along the U.S.-Mexico border whose future construction constituted more or less the entirety of Trump’s presidential campaign, has continued to be the great white whale propelling his administration’s domestic policy and is seemingly the final buoy keeping what’s left of his job approval rating afloat.

As such, “victory” in this context can mean nothing less than the actual building of an actual wall with actual funds appropriated by actual congresspeople.  For Trump to renege on his biggest, baddest campaign promise would pose something near an existential threat to his presidency and, with it, his immunity to prosecution by one Robert Mueller.

Indeed, if the Longest Government Shutdown in History taught us anything, it’s that Donald Trump’s selfishness knows no bounds.  That he will gladly throw the entire country under the bus to assert his own manliness and save his own skin.  That he values nothing so much as his own survival—and possibly nothing else at all.  That he regards his loyal fanbase as a mere prop with which to puff up his own vanity—and, when necessary, as a battering ram against all perceived enemies, foreign and domestic.

Think it can’t get worse?  It can always get worse, and if America’s current chief executive excels at anything, it’s finding the bottom of the barrel and drilling a trap door underneath it.

If you’re looking for statesmanship in the Oval Office, all you can do is look to 2020.

Were you to ask me, here in January 2019, what kind of person I would like to see as Trump’s eventual successor—temperamentally, characterologically—I would simply point to the 35-day fiasco the nation just endured and say, “Someone who would not allow a mess like that to ever occur.”

While I admire elected officials who feel passionately about major issues and express their views strongly and clearly, I would never support a presidential candidate who is so single-minded about a particular policy that he would callously deny a month’s pay to 800,000 American workers in order to get what he wants, exactly the way he wants it.

Nor would I support a prospective commander-in-chief whose official acts are so easily and obviously swayed by a gang of radio and TV personalities whom a supermajority of the public finds repulsive.  Whose self-esteem is so fragile, his innate sense of right and wrong so tenuous, that he will gingerly flush billions of dollars in productivity down the toilet in order to prove that, as a leader, he isn’t entirely impotent.  Whose solipsism is so all-consuming that when he is informed—as Trump was in early 2017—that his tax policy will likely wreck the American economy within a decade, his only response is to say, “Yeah, but I won’t be here.”

What I would like in our 46th president—whoever she may be—is someone sufficiently grown-up to resolve a complex issue like immigration without holding nearly a million federal employees and their families for ransom.  Someone who will negotiate in good faith and not view every disagreement as a zero-sum game.  Someone who will assume responsibility for her failures and share credit for her successes.  Someone who will lead by example and not perpetually be on the lookout for someone else to blame.

Someone who is interested in expanding her base of support, rather than merely solidifying the 30-odd percent of the population who will blindly follow her off a cliff.  Someone confident enough to trust her own instincts, but also humble enough to confide in those wiser and more experienced than she.  Someone who values country over party and understands that we live in a nation of laws and not men.

Will the Democratic Party nominate such a person at its convention in July 2020?  And will America elect her on Tuesday, November 3?

Can we afford not to?

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