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.

Clueless

What is it about Republicans with anger issues who sell themselves on temperament?

Maybe you missed it at the time, but toward the end of the second debate between Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008, McCain made the case for himself by imploring, “When times are tough, we need a steady hand at the tiller.”

It was a crucial (if obvious) point to make about the person who wields ultimate power, and its essential truth made it all the more bizarre that John McCain—John McCain!—was the one who brought it up.  Yes, the same John McCain who prides himself on being a political street fighter; who is known to tell fellow senators to go f–k themselves; who made Sarah Palin his running mate on a whim; who reacted to the financial meltdown by suspending his own campaign—that guy argued for serenity in America’s chief executive.

Even more absurd than McCain’s attempt to make himself out as the diametric opposite of what he actually is, there was the fact that he happened to be running against Barack Obama, arguably the most preternaturally calm political animal in a generation—a public official who, then as now, seems constitutionally incapable of acting impulsively or without careful deliberation.  A candidate, in other words, who seemed a perfect fit for his opponent’s description of an ideal leader.  And in the end, America agreed.

That McCain would say something so sloppily self-defeating—and so close to Election Day—suggested a lack of basic self-awareness from which he never quite recovered.  (Not that he ever really stood a chance.)  And now, eight years later, we are seeing history repeat itself—albeit in a comically outsize fashion—in the form of the most intellectually dishonest person to ever run for high office.

Among the many, many reasons that Donald Trump would make a god-awful president, his improbable mixture of cynicism and obliviousness is perhaps the most troubling of them all.  As a rule, most bad presidential candidates fall into one of two categories:  Either they themselves are irretrievably stupid, or they appeal to the stupidity of the American public.  It takes a very special kind of badness to accomplish both things at once, but somehow Trump has proved himself up to the task.

The first presidential debate on Monday provided us with multiple encapsulating moments for this terrible campaign, but none more forcefully cried out for our collective horror and ridicule than Trump’s assertion, “I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament.”

For anyone who has followed the 2016 race with even a modicum of guile and objectivity, the notion that Trump’s disposition is an inherent strength of his candidacy—and that Trump himself apparently thinks so—constitutes a plunge into surrealism and self-parody that even the Onion could not improve upon.  It’s a punch line in search of a setup—a claim so demonstrably false that the very act of correcting it makes one feel like valuable time is being squandered—like trying to explain astrophysics to a cat.

That Trump—with a straight face—would single out his temperament as a reason—nay, as the reason—to vote for him is the strongest and most succinct indication to date that his naïveté is even more dangerous and unattractive than his cynicism.

How so?  Because cynicism at least requires a basic understanding of human nature and a desire for self-preservation—traits that, when harnessed effectively, come in awful handy when you’re leader of the free world.

But to be so ignorant of your surroundings and your own flaws that you don’t even realize why everyone is snickering at you—well, that’s no good for anybody, is it?  Certainly not for America.

Let’s start with the bleeding obvious:  The nature of Donald Trump’s temperament is not up for debate.  As Monday’s matchup demonstrated over and over again, Trump operates entirely on impulse.  He shouts, he interrupts, he rambles, he doesn’t consider the consequences of what he says or the feelings of the people hearing them, he doesn’t take his comments back and, of course, he never apologizes for anything.

That’s Donald in a nutshell:  Not an alpha male so much as a broad, lazy stereotype of an alpha male.  The sort of guy you’d imagine tearing through a frat house, until you realize that fraternities have honor codes and would never accept someone whose only abiding passions are money and himself.

So for him to look America in the eye and say, “I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament,” one of two things must be true:  Either he doesn’t understand what the word “temperament” means—a theory that has not escaped the internet’s notice—or he is simply living in his own fictional universe where behaving like a spoiled, petulant child makes you a paragon of virtue.

By now, just about every psychologist in America has diagnosed Trump with narcissistic personality disorder—not that a professional opinion was required—but my own biggest worry about his mental state concerns his love for projection, a related disorder otherwise known as, “I know you are, but what am I?”  Whether he’s attacking Ted Cruz for being “nasty,” Elizabeth Warren for being “racist,” or Hillary Clinton for being “unhinged,” “unbalanced” and having “extraordinarily bad judgment and instincts,” Trump is truly a connoisseur of seeing in everyone else what everyone else sees in him.

Bearing this pattern in mind, his I-have-a-great-temperament line was essentially the inverse of this same quirk—an attempt to fraudulently absorb a positive trait, rather than fraudulently deflect a negative one.

It’s fraud in either case, and the brazenness of it is puzzling for someone who’s supposed to be America’s greatest con man.  It makes you wonder:  If he has drawn more than 40 percent of the vote for lying badly, how much better would he be doing if he were capable of lying well?

Hence our working hypothesis that he isn’t fully aware that he’s doing it, which would help to explain how someone can successfully deceive half the country while simultaneously being laughed at by the other half—how he can make himself a fool while thinking himself a genius.

If all else fails, there’s always our fallback theory that he’s throwing the election in the most entertaining possible way, so that the world never finds out what happens when America is ruled by a man who can’t see three feet in front of him.  If the remaining two debates are anything like the first, he just might succeed yet.

The L Word

Over the weekend, Showtime aired a new documentary about Barney Frank, the now-retired congressman who represented Massachusetts’ 4th district for 32 years.  Among Frank’s many quips included in the film (he was known as much for his wit as for his legislative clout), the one that most stuck with me was his response to the question, “What is a progressive?”

“A progressive,” Frank said, “is a liberal who’s afraid to admit it.”

Sounds about right to me.

It is remarkable—and always worth pointing out—how completely the word “liberal” has been scrubbed from the Democratic Party in Washington.  Ask any major Democratic figure to tick off the adjectives that best describe him or her, and you’ll find that “liberal” is nowhere to be found.

Indeed, it’s as if party leaders called a secret meeting some years back and proclaimed “liberal” the eighth entry on George Carlin’s list of words you can’t say on television, then went on to intone that “progressive” is the preferred euphemism that shall be employed from this point forward.

Everyone’s been marching in lockstep ever since.

At the first Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton was asked if she is a progressive or a moderate.  No one even thought to include “liberal” in the list of choices.

Bernie Sanders’ website boasts of “a progressive economic agenda,” but not a word about doing anything for liberalism.  And this from a guy who’s trying to resurrect “socialism” from the linguistic dustbin of history.

President Obama?  Same deal.  Democrats in Congress?  Ditto.  Far as they’re concerned, they’re a progressive party with a progressive agenda.  No bout a-doubt it:  “Liberal” has been stricken from the record and “progressive” is the new black.

This leaves us with two questions I have never quite shaken.  First:  Why?  And second:  Does it even matter?

Implicitly, I think Barney Frank’s pithy definition manages to answer both.  In short:  Democrats are scaredy-cats.

Taking my second question first:  Is there a functional difference between these two words, or are they interchangeable?

I’ve always naïvely assumed the latter, figuring that “progressive” is simply a nicer-sounding version of an otherwise identical concept.  Barney Frank evidently agrees.

But then I underwent a bit of Internet sleuthing and realized the issue isn’t as cut and dry as all that.  For instance, from a Huffington Post article by David Sirota, we have the following:

“It seems to me that traditional ‘liberals’ in our current parlance are those who focus on using taxpayer money to help better society.  ‘Progressives’ are those who focus on using government power to make large institutions play by a set of rules.”

If that sounds like splitting hairs, don’t worry, it gets worse.

Indeed, scour the web long enough—say, three or four minutes—and you’ll find “serious” arguments claiming that while Bernie Sanders may be a progressive and a socialist, he is most definitely not a liberal.  Or that Hillary Clinton, for all her posturing—along with three or four decades of advocacy for left-wing causes—is not the progressive-in-chief she presumes to become.

All this talk of who’s a real Democrat and who’s not is eerily reminiscent of the purity tests to which conservative voters have subjected Republicans over the past decade or so—particularly in the era of the Tea Party, in which there is no such thing as being too conservative.

The crucial difference, though, is that Republicans actually take the bait, tripping all over each other to be the most maniacally right-wing person on the stage.  That’s how you get Mitt Romney calling himself a “severely conservative” candidate in 2012, or Marco Rubio hardening his positions on things like immigration and abortion over the last few months.

On the whole, Democrats are the reverse, constantly assuring us that they are less liberal than they appear.  Hence Barack Obama pretending to be against same-sex marriage in 2008, or John Kerry embracing the Iraq War four years earlier.

The conventional wisdom is that candidates run toward the extremes for the primaries and toward the center for the general election.  Not really.  Republicans, maybe.  But Democrats pretty much cling to the center and stay there.  Recall how Bill Clinton in 1992 built his entire candidacy on being a “New Democrat,” suggesting there was something wrong with the old ones.

In fact, there was something wrong with them:  They kept losing elections.  Candidates like Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale ran as across-the-board liberals and got walloped.  While those particular losses can be attributed to personality as much as policy (Dukakis’ in particular), it became clear that the party would need to change in one way or another, and Clinton’s solution amounted to,  “Let’s be more like Republicans.”

To be fair, the gambit worked, insofar as it produced electoral victories.  The Democratic candidate has won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, and always on the implicit promise of being agreeably moderate on most things, whether through cutting taxes, maintaining a large military presence overseas or being as glacial as possible on civil liberties and civil rights.

If the benefit of this strategy has been having a liberal in the Oval Office, the cost has been liberalism itself.  The Democratic Party’s ideological center of gravity is smack in the middle of the American political spectrum, leaving left-wing voters with no one to defend their views on such matters as social justice or economic inequality.  When such true-blue figures appear—say, in the form of Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders—left-wing voters treat them like the unicorns they are.

There are a billion national Republicans whom the GOP base can claim as its own.  Why does the Democratic base have almost none at all?

Easy:  Because the Democratic Party either doesn’t trust its own ideas, or it doesn’t trust its ability to sell those ideas to the public.

Considering public opinion, you’d think they would try every now and again.  After all, such core liberal programs like Medicare and Social Security remain intensely popular from coast to coast, while subjects that Democrats didn’t even touch a decade ago—gay marriage, legal marijuana, prison reform—are becoming more accepted by the day.

The party worries that it’s too liberal for America.  Has it ever wondered if it isn’t the other way around?

Something Nice to Say

A note of cordiality.

At the close of Monday’s Massachusetts senatorial debate between incumbent Scott Brown and challenger Elizabeth Warren, moderator David Gregory asked if either candidate had anything nice to say about the other.

Warren took the opportunity to commend Brown for voting to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in December 2010—a fairly brave act for a Republican.  Brown, for his part, called Warren an excellent teacher, glibly adding that he would do all he could to keep her safely at Harvard Law.

Senator Brown has said his race against Professor Warren is predominantly a question of character.  To the extent that he is correct, the measure of one’s character can be fairly well determined by how one regards his or her opponent.  To heap genuine praise demonstrates a generosity and humility that is only to one’s credit.  In politics, I wish it was done more often.

Let us be clear from the start:  Not all humility is created equal.  There is real humility, and there is political humility.  Saying that your opponent has “a lovely family,” as Warren did, doesn’t count.  Nor does calling your opponent “a nice guy.”  Everyone has a lovely family.  Everyone is a nice guy.  That’s the name of the game, and it’s a lazy point to underline.

Part of being a great debater is to know your adversary’s strongest arguments, and to be able to make them better than he or she can.  In that vein, praise for one’s political nemesis ought to have real muscle behind it, as if the person were not your nemesis at all.  It might get your audience to thinking, “He must be really confident of his own policies, if he is willing to be so generous toward the other guy.”

Real magnanimity must also be unconditional, and not backhanded, or as a way of tacitly praising oneself.

During the presidential race, for instance, Barack Obama has taken to trumping the success of Mitt Romney’s health care reform in Massachusetts and citing it as an inspiration for the Affordable Care Act.  While technically a compliment—“His policy was so good, I adopted it as my own”—Obama employed it as a means of kneecapping Romney in his standing with Republican voters, who consider “Romneycare” the least appealing item on Romney’s resume.

Most politicians seem to couple rhetorical generosity with admitting error, viewing each as a sign of weakness and something to be avoided at all costs—hence their tendency to do so.

This brings us to a corollary question, hardly ever answered adequately:  “What have been your biggest mistakes?”  Historically, politicians have tackled this question in one of two ways.  The first is to tender the broad throat-clearer, “Oh, I’m sure I’ve made many mistakes in my life,” without proffering a single actual example.  The second, and maybe even worse, approach is to provide what might sound like a real answer but is, in fact, a boast.

Perhaps the most spectacular instance of this latter ploy was essayed by none other than Mitt Romney during a senatorial debate against Edward Kennedy in 1994.  Asked for his “greatest personal failing,” Romney gave a detailed account of his years of service in helping the poor and the sick.  When the moderator interrupted to inquire if Romney had heard the question properly, Romney sheepishly said his “failing,” then, is having not done even more of this wonderful, saintly work.

We’re not stupid.  We understand why our perspective leaders, with everything on the line, shy away from self-inflicted vulnerability and from making their adversaries look good.  The question answers itself.

That is precisely why those who run the risk of making themselves appear human, and of treating members of the electorate as if they were adults, deserve a special kind of respect and encouragement.

Further, as I have already suggested, magnanimity may well prove politically advantageous.  Obama, after all, hardly seemed to do himself any harm in 2008 by preceding every critique of John McCain with a nod toward McCain’s military service.  McCain, moreover, only made himself appear petty by regarding Obama as an in-over-his-head neophyte who was beneath McCain’s good graces.

This year (if the reporting is to be believed), loathing between Obama and Romney is mutual, with neither viewing the other as worthy of the office they both seek.  That might make for a tartly amusing first debate this evening, but it sure isn’t a good sign for the country.

Late at night on November 6, one of these men will deliver a congratulatory concession to the other, and it would be—shall we say, nice?—if the words of well-wishing were spoken, at least partially, from the heart.