The Limits of Loyalty

Is loyalty a virtue or a sin?  Does the world need more of it, or less?

Donald Trump, in a controversial speech to the Boy Scouts of America on Monday, endorsed the former in no uncertain terms, rambling to the gathering of thousands of teenage boys, “As the Scout Law says, ‘A scout is trustworthy, loyal’—we could use some more loyalty, I will tell you that.”

The subtext of this remark was clear enough to anyone paying attention to current events.  Throughout the past week, the president has been very publicly steaming about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump feels betrayed him by recusing himself from the administration’s Russia imbroglio—and also, apparently, by not investigating Hillary Clinton for God knows what.  In an ongoing series of tweets, Trump has tarred Sessions as “beleaguered” and “VERY weak,” effectively goading him into resigning, lest the abuse continue indefinitely.

The implication—or explication, as the case may be—is that Sessions’s duty as America’s chief law enforcement officer is to protect Donald Trump from the law, not to defend the law against those who violate it, up to and including the commander-in-chief himself.  As Trump made plain in an interview with the New York Times, his hiring of Sessions was predicated on the AG serving the president—not the Constitution.

But then it’s not only Sessions who has found himself the object of Trump’s wrath on the question of absolute allegiance.  Let’s not forget James Comey, the former director of the FBI, who famously met with the president in January, when the latter said, point-blank, “I need loyalty; I expect loyalty.”  Comey’s eventual sacking—like Sessions’s, should it occur—was the result of being insufficiently faithful to the man in the Oval Office.  Of daring to think, and act, for himself.

As someone who has never been leader of the free world—nor, for that matter, held any position of real responsibility—I must confess that I remain skeptical about the value of unconditional submission in one’s day-to-day life and generally regard free agency as the far superior of the two virtues.  Indeed, I would argue (to answer my own question) that “virtue” might be altogether the wrong word to use in this context.

When thinking about loyalty, the question you must ask yourself is:  What, exactly, am I being loyal to?  Is it to a set of principles, or to another human being?  And if you are merely dedicating yourself to a person, what has he or she done to deserve it, and what, if anything, will you be getting in return?

Certainly, the spectacle of Trump demanding total fealty to Trump is the most extreme—and most cartoonish—manifestation of this latter category, since the president has shown minimal interest in reciprocating whatever devotion happens to come his way.  Except with members of his immediate family (so far, anyway), Trump’s modus operandi is to ask for everything and give nothing back.  Part and parcel of being a textbook sociopath, Trump views his fellow humans purely as a means to an end and rarely, if ever, stops to think how he might make their lives easier in the process.  It does not occur to him to treat people with respect for its own sake.  If anything, he views empathy as a sign of weakness.

This behavior may well represent an abuse and perversion of an otherwise useful human trait, but that hardly makes a difference when considering the enormous political power of the man doing the perverting.

Which brings us—by way of analogy—to Adolf Hitler.

In Germany, beginning in 1934, all members of the armed forces were required to swear a solemn oath—not to Germany, mind you, but to the man at the top.  This vow, or Reichswehreid, read, in part, “To the Leader of the German Empire and people, Adolf Hitler, supreme commander of the armed forces, I shall render unconditional obedience and […] at all times be prepared to give my life for this oath.”  As you might’ve guessed, soldiers who refused to comply tended not to live very long.

If that seems like an extreme and sui generis example of a personality cult run amok, let me remind you of the moment in March 2016 when, at a campaign rally in Florida, Donald Trump implored his adoring crowd to raise their right hands and pledge, “I do solemnly swear that I—no matter how I feel, no matter what the conditions, if there’s hurricanes or whatever—will vote […] for Donald J. Trump for president.”

While a stunt like that doesn’t exactly sink to the depths of the Hitler oath—Trump wasn’t about to jail or murder anyone who opted out—it is nonetheless a profoundly creepy thing for a presidential candidate in a democratic republic to say—particularly when you recall that Trump once reportedly kept an anthology of Hitler’s speeches at his bedside table.  This for a man who can otherwise go years without reading a single book.

That Trump evidently views Hitler as some sort of role model—and is haphazardly aping the Führer’s stylistic flourishes on the campaign trail—ought to give us serious pause about where his own fidelity lies—is it to the nation or himself?—and about whether his pronouncement at the Republican National Convention that he—and he alone—is capable of steering America forward was less an expression of supreme confidence than a barely-veiled threat against those who doubt that a serially-bankrupt con artist is the best man to preside over the largest economy in the world.

The problem, you see, is not that Trump is Hitler.  (He’s not.)  The problem is that he wants to be Hitler—and Mussolini and Saddam Hussein and Vladimir Putin and every other national figurehead who has managed to wield near-absolute authority over his citizenry—often with sarcastically high approval ratings and totally unburdened by the institutional checks and balances that America’s founders so brilliantly installed in 1787.

While Trump’s ultimate ambitions might not be as violent or imperial as those of the men I just listed—in the end, he seems to care about little beyond self-enrichment—the central lesson of the first six months of his administration—plus the first 71 years of his life—is that there is nothing he will not try to get away with at least once.  No sacred cow he will not trample.  No rule he will not bend.  No sin he will not commit.  He is a man of bottomless appetites and zero restraint.  Left to his own devices, he would spend his entire presidency arranging meetings—like the one with his cabinet last month—whose participants did nothing but praise him for being the greatest man in the history of the world.  A Kim Jong-un of the West.

Remember:  The sole reason Trump hasn’t already turned the United States into a full-blown banana republic is that he can’t.  Constitutionally-speaking, the only things stopping him from indulging his basest instincts are Congress, the courts and the American public, and we’ve seen how tenuous all three of those institutions can be.  Should the remaining branches of government fulfill their obligations as a check on executive overreach and malfeasance, we’ll be fine.  Should they falter—thereby providing Trump the untrammeled loyalty he demands—we’ll be in for the longest eight years of our lives.

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Eye of the Beholder

Can a piece of art ever exist entirely on its own, or is it always tethered to the context of its creation?

For instance, is it possible to listen to the Ring Cycle without remembering that Richard Wagner was an anti-Semitic prick whose music inspired the rise of Hitler?

Can one watch Manhattan—the story of a 42-year-old man’s love affair with a 17-year-old girl—and not be distracted and/or repulsed by the personal life of its writer, director and star, Woody Allen?

As a society, we’ve had a version of this argument many times before, trying to figure out how to separate the art from the artist, while also debating whether such a thing is even desirable in the first place.  (The answer to both:  “It depends.”)

Lately, however, this perennial question has assumed a racial dimension, compelling us to re-litigate it anew—this time with considerably higher stakes.

Here’s what happened.  Over at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, the curators of the institution’s 78th biennial—an exhibition of hundreds of contemporary works by dozens of artists—chose to include Open Casket, a semi-abstract painting that depicts the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American boy who was tortured and lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white girl.  (The woman in question later admitted she made the whole thing up, but that’s another story.)

As a painting, Open Casket is arresting, with the oils so thickly layered that Till’s mangled face literally protrudes from the canvas, as if calling out to us from beyond the grave.  As a political statement, it fits comfortably into our uncomfortable era of police brutality and racial unease—a natural, even obvious, choice for any socially conscious art show in 2017.

There was just one little problem:  The creator of Open Casket is white.  Specifically, a Midwestern white woman living in Brooklyn named Dana Schutz.

Upon hearing that a Caucasian had dared to tackle Emmett Till as the subject for a painting, many patrons demanded the Whitney remove Open Casket from its walls, while condemning Schutz for attempting to profit off of black pain—a practice, they argued, that has defined—and defiled—white culture since before the founding of the republic, and should be discouraged at all costs.  The message, in effect, was that white people should stick to their own history and allow black people to deal with theirs.

In response to this brouhaha, the Whitney defended its inclusion of Schutz’s work without directly addressing the race question, while Schutz herself issued a statement that read, in part, “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America.  But I do know what it is like to be a mother.  Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son.  I thought about the possibility of painting it only after listening to interviews with her.  In her sorrow and rage she wanted her son’s death not just to be her pain but America’s pain.”

In other words:  Far from being exploitative or opportunistic, Open Casket is meant as an act of compassion and empathy toward black America from an artist who views Emmett Till’s death as a tragedy for all Americans—not just black ones.

Of course, that is merely Dana Schutz’s own interpretation of her work, and if history teaches us anything, it’s that the meaning of a given cultural artifact is never limited to what its creator might have intended at the time.  The artist Hannah Black, one of Schutz’s critics, is quite right in observing, “[I]f black people are telling her that the painting has caused unnecessary hurt, she […] must accept the truth of this.”

The real question, then, is whether offensiveness—inadvertent or not—is enough to justify removing a piece of art from public view, as Black and others have advocated in this case.

If, like me, you believe the First Amendment is more or less absolute—that all forms of honest expression are inherently useful in a free society—then the question answers itself.  Short of inciting a riot (and possibly not even then), no art museum should be compelled to censor itself so as not to hurt the feelings of its most sensitive patrons, however justified those feelings might be.  Au contraire:  If a museum isn’t offending somebody—thereby sparking a fruitful conversationit probably isn’t worth visiting in the first place.

Unfortunately, in the Age of Trump, the American left has decided the First Amendment is negotiable—that its guarantee of free speech can, and should, be suspended whenever the dignity of a vulnerable group is threatened.  That so-called “hate speech” is so inherently destructive—so wounding, so cruel—that it needn’t be protected by the Constitution at all.  As everyone knows, if there was one thing the Founding Fathers could not abide, it was controversy.

What is most disturbing about this liberal drift toward total political correctness is the creative slippery slope it has unleashed—and the abnegation of all nuance and moral perspective that goes with it—of which the Whitney kerfuffle is but the latest example.

See, it’s one thing if Open Casket had been painted by David Duke—that is, if it had been an openly racist provocation by a callous, genocidal lunatic.  But it wasn’t:  It was painted by a mildly-entitled white lady from Brooklyn who has a genuine concern for black suffering and wants more Americans to know what happened to Emmett Till.

And yet, in today’s liberal bubble factory, even that is considered too unseemly for public consumption and must be stamped out with all deliberate speed.  Here in 2017, the line of acceptable artistic practice has been moved so far downfield that an artist can only explore the meaning of life within his or her own racial, ethnic or socioeconomic group, because apparently it’s impossible and counterproductive to creatively empathize with anyone with a different background from yours.

By this standard, Kathryn Bigelow should not have directed The Hurt Locker, since, as a woman, she could not possibly appreciate the experience of being a male combat soldier in Iraq.  Nor, for that matter, should Ang Lee have tackled Brokeback Mountain, because what on Earth does a straight Taiwanese man like him know about surreptitious homosexual relationships in the remote hills of Wyoming?  Likewise, light-skinned David Simon evidently had no business creating Treme or The Wire, while Bob Dylan should’ve steered clear of Hattie Carroll and Rubin Carter as characters in two of his most politically-charged songs.

Undoubtedly there are some people who agree with all of the above, and would proscribe any non-minority from using minorities as raw material for his or her creative outlet (and vice versa).

However, if one insists on full-bore racial and ethnic purity when it comes to the arts, one must also reckon with its consequences—namely, the utter negation of most of the greatest art ever created by man (and woman).  As I hope those few recent examples illustrate, this whole theory that only the members of a particular group are qualified to tell the story of that group is a lie.  An attractive, romantic and sensible lie, to be sure—but a lie nonetheless.

The truth—for those with the nerve to face it—is that although America’s many “communities” are ultimately defined by the qualities that separate them from each other—certainly, no one would mistake the black experience for the Jewish experience, or the Chinese experience for the Puerto Rican experience—human nature itself remains remarkably consistent across all known cultural subgroups.  As such, even if an outsider to a particular sect cannot know what it is like to be of that group, the power of empathy is (or can be) strong enough to allow one to know—or at least estimate—how such a thing feels.

As a final example, consider Moonlight—the best movie of 2016, according to me and the Academy (in that order).  A coming-of-age saga told in three parts, Moonlight has been universally lauded as one of the great cinematic depictions of black life in America—and no wonder, since its director, Barry Jenkins, grew up in the same neighborhood as the film’s hero, Chiron, and is, himself, black.

Slightly less commented on—but no less noteworthy—is Moonlight’s masterful meditation on what it’s like to be gay—specifically, to be a gay, male teenager in an environment where heterosexuality and masculinity are one and the same, and where being different—i.e., soft-spoken, sensitive and unsure—can turn you into a marked man overnight, and the only way to save yourself is to pretend—for years on end—to be someone else.

Now, my own gay adolescence was nowhere near as traumatic as Chiron’s—it wasn’t traumatic at all, really—yet I found myself overwhelmed by the horrible verisimilitude of every detail of Chiron’s reckoning with his emerging self.  Here was a portrait of nascent homosexuality that felt more authentic than real life—something that cannot possibly be achieved in film unless the men on both sides of the camera have a deep and intimate understanding of the character they’re developing.

Well, guess what:  They didn’t.  For all the insights Moonlight possesses on this subject, neither Barry Jenkins, the director, nor a single one of the leading actors is gay.  While they may well have drawn from their own brushes with adversity to determine precisely who this young man is—while also receiving a major assist from the film’s (gay) screenwriter, Tarell Alvin McCraney—the finished product is essentially a bold leap of faith as to what the gay experience is actually like.

Jenkins and his actors had no reason—no right, according to some—to pull this off as flawlessly as they did, and yet they did.  How?  Could it be that the condition of being black in this country—of feeling perpetually ill at ease, guarded and slightly out of place in one’s cultural milieu—has a clear, if imprecise, parallel to the condition of being gay, such that to have a deep appreciation of one is to give you a pretty darned good idea of the other?  And, by extension, that to be one form of human being is to be empowered to understand—or attempt to understand—the point of view of another?  And that this just might be a good thing after all?

The Popularity Paradox

Woody Allen has always made a point never to read reviews of his own films.  The way he sees it, you cannot accept compliments without also accepting criticism, and since he has no desire to indulge the latter, he has opted to disregard both and just keep chugging along on his own terms, heedless of how the rest of the world might react to the finished product.

While one emulates Woody Allen at one’s peril, his philosophy of not being preoccupied with others’ opinions is a sound one—an idea that perhaps ought to be taken more to heart by the average American, and especially by not-so-average Americans like the one currently living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

As things stand, if there’s one thing we know for sure about Donald Trump, it’s that he only cares about what other people think.  In every facet of his life, our president is essentially a human mood ring whose hue is perfectly synchronized with however his adoring public seems to perceive him at a given moment:  If they’re happy, he’s happy.  He quantifies all Earthly success in terms of ratings, status and wealth, and it has become abundantly clear that assuming the presidency has had absolutely no impact on this profoundly amoral view of the world.

While this dynamic worked beautifully for Trump as a candidate—“My poll numbers are bigger than yours!”—the fact of actually being commander-in-chief has introduced an unattractive complication into Trump’s perceived cult of infallibility:  At this moment, scarcely one-third of the country thinks he’s doing a decent job, and whenever he tries to make good on his core campaign pledges, his efforts are thwarted by either Congress or the courts.

This sure ain’t what Mr. Winning had it mind when he signed up.  Much as how Richard Nixon famously articulated, “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal,” Trump entered this job figuring that he could get away with anything so long as a majority of the public approved it—and that if the public didn’t approve it, he could simply claim the polls are wrong, as he did throughout the latter half of 2016.

In effect, he thought he could be an American Mussolini—ruling by executive fiat and steamrolling Congressional opposition through direct appeals to his base—and many of us had full faith that he would succeed, or at least give it the old college try.

Amidst all this fear that Trump would destroy American democracy as we know it (which he still has ample time to do, of course), we didn’t necessarily give much thought to what might happen were Trump to falter—how he would respond to a sustained period of fecklessness and public ennui, which we seem to have entered following last week’s aborted GOP healthcare bill, to say nothing of the ongoing Russian intrigue that has been piling up since before January 20.

Supposing this stench of failure doesn’t dissipate anytime soon, how does Trump justify his continued existence in government?  In the absence of being liked—nay, in the absence of “winning”—what exactly does Trump stand for in his own mind?  In the teeth of widespread public antipathy to his performance as America’s head of state—and “performance” is definitely the right word—what is the guiding principle that’ll carry him from one conflict to the next?

See, when there was a clear sense of what specific actions would sate the reptile minds of his minions—say, imposing a travel ban on Muslims or building a wall along the Mexican border—Trump could confidently put pen to paper and congratulate himself on a job well done.  Easy peasy.

What he didn’t count on—obvious as it was to everyone else—was that half of his campaign promises were unconstitutional, while the other half were fiscally insane.  Accordingly, short of torching both houses of Congress and crowning himself emperor (perhaps he’s saving that for the second term?), Trump was destined to face serious pushback to his agenda within minutes of “making America great again.”  Now that a major chunk of his policy portfolio is on life support or worse, he may need to decide whether playing to the angry mob was such a hot strategy after all.

Historically, presidents with exceptionally low approval ratings have taken the Woody Allen view—that is, to effect a conspicuous detachment from the passions of the unwashed masses, appealing instead to future historians as the ultimate arbiters of the rightness of their executive decisions.  As we know from such men as Harry Truman and George H.W. Bush, there is some credence to the theory that being unpopular in your own time doesn’t necessarily preclude you from achieving immortality—or at least respectability—a generation or two after the fact.

The catch, however, is that Truman and Bush were men of decency, conviction and patriotism:  Even in their lowest moments, they believed to their boots that they were trying to do the right thing and were prepared to defend their records until the last dog died.  In acting against the will of the majority, they evoked the classical ethos—championed by no less than the Founding Fathers—that the short-term desires of the people must occasionally be overruled in the long-term interest of the public.  In the long sweep of history, leaders who risked their reputations for the greater good of the country have been viewed very favorably, indeed.

Donald Trump is no such person.  Day in and day out, for 70 years running, our current president has only ever concerned himself with, well, himself.  Whether on top of the world or with his back against the wall, he prioritizes Trump first, the Trump family second, and everyone else not at all.  Matt Taibbi was perhaps being cheeky when he mused in Rolling Stone that “Trump would eat a child in a lifeboat,” but the image rings true:  In Trump’s eyes, no human being has value except for what he or she can do for Donald.

Which leads us to arguably the most essential, inescapable fact about Trump as president:  Because he does not view human relations in moral terms—because he is a textbook sociopath with zero capacity for emotional growth—he can never be counted on to do the right thing, unless he does it by accident.  Unlike virtually all past presidents at one point or another, he will never face down his staunchest supporters and say, “I know you won’t approve what I’m about to do, but trust me, it’s for your own good.  Someday, you’ll thank me.”

What will he do over the next four (if not eight) years?  Presumably, what he always does:  When his approval rating is solid, he will sign whatever bill will keep those numbers up (e.g., the Muslim ban).  When his popularity tanks—as it has done pretty much this whole time—he will publicly throw a tantrum while privately using the executive branch as his own personal graft machine.  And when he manages to be both unpopular and ineffectual (e.g., failing to repeal Obamacare), he will do what he does best:  Pretend nothing happened, lose interest and walk away.

That’s what you get when you put an emotionally needy charlatan in charge of the largest economy on Earth:  Instability, immorality, ineptitude and intransigence.  A bumbling, crooked train ride to nowhere.

Against All Enemies

The election of Donald Trump was arguably the worst disaster to befall the United States since September 11, 2001.  But if you ask what will keep me up at night once Trump assumes power, the answer is:  Whatever disaster comes next.

I say “whatever,” but really, I mean terrorism.  If not a large-scale, years-in-the-making cataclysm like 9/11, then perhaps a series of multi-city, mass-casualty suicide bombings like we’ve seen throughout Europe the last several years:  Barbarous, politically-motivated strikes that, individually, are not destructive enough to bring America to its collective knees but, taken together, have the effect of radicalizing ordinary citizens into seeking extraordinary, extralegal measures to ensure such death and disruption doesn’t become (to use the buzzword of the moment) normalized.

You can see it coming from 100 miles away:  Trump conditions his supporters to view all Muslims with suspicion as potential ISIS recruits.  Then one day, their worst fears are realized when actual radical Islamists commit an actual act of terrorism on American soil.  As a consequence, those citizens who for years have been fed a steady diet of revulsion and contempt toward the entire Islamic faith will feel emboldened to act on those worst instincts.

At the street level, this will inevitably take the form of countless assaults and harassment against any and all perceived “foreigners” by brainless white thugs cloaking themselves in the mantle of “patriotism,” cheered on by fellow white thugs waving the flag of white supremacy.

We know this is what would happen following the next terrorist attack because it’s happening right now in the absence of it:  Every other day, we hear about some Muslim-American or other being targeted by deranged white idiots for the sole crime of reading from the wrong bible and praying to the wrong god.  Never mind that virtually every major act of violence in America since 9/11 has been committed by white Christians; never mind that you’re more likely to be killed by a piece of furniture than a terrorist attack; and never mind that, within the United States, organized Islamic jihad isn’t even remotely a thing.

Nope:  We are now firmly entrenched in a post-fact environment, and there’s no amount of data or common sense that will prevent several million of our dumbest countrymen from viewing several million of their fellow citizens as avowed enemies of our very way of life.

It’s an insane, racist, destructive way to think, and the incoming commander-in-chief has been enabling it every step of the way.

Without much doubt, a Trump administration will be lousy for women, lousy for African-Americans, lousy for gays, lousy for Hispanics and lousy for Jews.  But for my money, it is America’s Muslims who are the most vulnerable group of all, because their “otherness” is so completely (and irrationally) tethered to a gang of murderers 5,000 miles away over whose actions they have absolutely no control.

Like German Jews in the 1930s or the young women of Salem, Mass., in 1692, Muslims have become the designated scapegoats for most, if not all, social unrest in the 21st century, and it is entirely up to us—the non-Muslim majority—to ensure they don’t suffer a similar historical fate.

As with all other heretofore-unthinkable scenarios, we have little cause for complacency on this front.  Never forget:  During the campaign—in response to no specific threat—Trump suggested a blanket prohibition on all Muslims entering the United States “until we know what’s going on,” and also insinuated—albeit in his characteristically slippery, incoherent way—that the government should create some sort of “registry” to keep an eye on Muslims already living in the U.S.  You know, just in case.

The point isn’t whether he really meant it.  As anyone with half a brain ought to know by now, Trump doesn’t really mean anything.

The point—chilling and undeniable—is that, in Trump’s mind, absolutely nothing is out of bounds.  To him, there is no limit to what the president can do for the sake of “national security”:  The ends justify the means, even when the ends themselves are unclear.  Having never read a word of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Geneva Conventions or, for that matter, the Old and New Testaments, he believes himself immune to the institutional checks and basic ethical norms that every other democratically-elected official takes for granted and that serve as the societal glue that holds this crazy world together.

Fundamentally, our next president possesses the mind of a dictator, waking up every morning thinking, “If it can be done, why shouldn’t it be?”

Hence the profound unease we should all feel about how he might behave in an emergency—particularly given our country’s abysmal track record in this department.

Remember:  In response to World War II, Franklin Roosevelt systemically violated the Constitutional rights of 120,000 American citizens in the off-chance they were Japanese sleeper agents—and he is considered the greatest president of the 20th century.  Eight decades earlier, Abraham Lincoln reacted to the Civil War by unilaterally suspending habeas corpus—a highly unconstitutional move that was roundly condemned by the Supreme Court, whose judgment the president then promptly ignored.  And Lincoln was the greatest man in the history of everything.

You don’t think Trump’s advisers have studied up on those cases and are prepared to use them as a pretext for rounding up Muslims en masse in the aftermath of the next big national calamity?  More worrying still:  Are we at all confident that, in a 9/11-like situation, Republicans in Congress will summon the courage to defend America’s core principles and prevent Trump from assuming dictatorial powers from now until the end of time?

They won’t if they live in competitive districts and fear being “primaried” in the next election.  They won’t if they expect to be labeled unpatriotic and “soft on terror” if they dare suggest that not all Muslims pose a national security risk.  And they certainly won’t if there is a groundswell of support from America’s basket of deplorables to turn the world’s greatest democracy into a perpetual police state with the sole objective of making white people feel safe.

It’s a central—and oft-repeated—lesson of world history:  Republics cannot be destroyed except from within.  In 1787, our founders designed a system of government—subject to layer upon layer of checks and balances—that could withstand every imaginable challenge to its viability save one:  The failure of all three branches to uphold it.

On January 20, Donald Trump will raise his right hand and swear an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  If his public statements over the last 18 months are any indication, he will probably violate that oath midway through his inaugural address, at which point Congress will need to decide whether it truly values country over party, and whether the principles established in that very Constitution are still worth defending against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

Particularly when one of those enemies is sitting in the Oval Office.

The Price of Independence

Monday is the Fourth of July—that most joyous, triumphant day in which Americans gather ’round the barbecue grill and celebrate the moment 240 years ago when our Founding Fathers—the most brilliant men of their generation—summoned all of their creative energies in the singular cause of perpetuating slavery for 89 more years.

OK, so that wasn’t the only thing the men in the Continental Congress accomplished in the summer of 1776.  In ratifying the Declaration of Independence, the Congress established—against all historical precedent—that nations ought to be governed by laws, not men, and that the men writing and enforcing those laws ought to be representative of—and accountable to—the common, everyday folk.  And, of course, this was all rooted in the radical idea that all men are created equal and are endowed with certain unalienable rights, etc, etc.

So they did that—renouncing the most ancient, repressive form of government on Earth while proposing an alternative that had scarcely ever been tried before, thereby laying the foundation for what would eventually become the most prosperous republic that has ever existed.  In effect, this group of extraordinary men seized an extraordinary opportunity, realizing that, in the words of Thomas Paine, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

Which begs the question:  Why did this new world include chattel slavery?

It’s a contradiction that has grown more inexplicable with each passing July 4—namely, that these rabble-rousers could ground their entire revolutionary argument on the principle of universal equality while simultaneously preserving an institution that was a negation of that principle in every possible respect.

Many Americans today seem to think the founders were simply oblivious to it all—that they didn’t realize that owning human beings was a direct violation of the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that this magic document promised to establish and uphold.

While there is a certain perverse appeal in assuming the men who created America were a bunch of idiots who couldn’t see what was staring them directly in the face, the truth is at once more nuanced, more tragic and more shameful.

In point of fact, the signers of the Declaration were entirely cognizant of the moral pretzel they were contorting themselves into, and the proof is the following paragraph from Thomas Jefferson’s original—and, he believed, superior—draft:

“[The king] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.  This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain.  Determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.”

As far as the morality of slavery is concerned, it doesn’t get any clearer than that.  Here, as in so many other places, we find that Jefferson in 1776 understood instinctively that slavery was an evil economic engine that, in making people into property, robbed them of their dignity and betrayed their most basic rights as human beings.  As a Virginia planter who eventually owned upwards of 200 slaves himself—four of whom were his biological children—Jefferson knew these self-evident truths more deeply than most, although he was hardly the only one.

That’s the nuance.  The tragedy and the shame is that Jefferson’s full-throated condemnation of the slave trade never made it into the final draft of the Declaration, thereby taking emancipation off the table as a subject for debate anytime in the near-future.

And why was that, ladies and gentlemen?  Why did the Continental Congress neglect to confront a massive, obvious problem at the very moment when it might have done everyone the most good?

In short:  Because they could only solve one massive, obvious problem at a time.

The choice was mutually exclusive:  Either they could declare independence or they could try to get rid of slavery.  Given the intractable realities of the day, there was no plausible way to free their slaves under any circumstances; meanwhile, the challenge of separating from Great Britain—an objective that several colonies resisted until the very last moment—would only come about on the condition that slavery be totally ignored until some unspecified future date.

As any viewer of 1776 will know, the Declaration of Independence needed to be ratified without a single dissenting vote, and it was as clear as the bright, blue sky that the delegates from North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia would’ve never, ever voted “yes” if it meant giving up an institution that constituted their entire way of life.  In 1776—as in 1861 and all the years in between—the continuance of slavery was, for the American South, utterly non-negotiable.

(We should also note—before we give him too much credit—that Jefferson went to his grave believing blacks were biologically inferior to whites, that a biracial society was impossible and that the only way to free the slaves was to ship them overseas and never deal with them again.)

And so—considering the world as it actually was, rather than as we wish it had been—we are left to ask:  Did the Founding Fathers do the right thing in July of 1776?

While counterfactuals are inherently unknowable and somewhat useless, it’s worth noting that Great Britain abolished slavery in 1833—a full 32 years before we did.  Is it possible that, by simply staying in the empire, the United States would have been cleansed of its original stain at least one generation ahead of schedule?  Are we entirely sure that life for the average American—let alone the average black American—was improved by breaking off from the empire when (and as) we did?  In retrospect, could the entire American Revolution have been one big terrible mistake?

In the end, we’re stuck with the history that actually happened and must deal with the facts that were known at the time.  In that context, the best we can do is to reclaim the truth of America’s founding by observing how morally ambiguous it truly was.  We cannot proclaim July 4 as a wholly virtuous moment without making racist spectacles of ourselves, but nor can we dismiss the whole episode as the source of all white supremacy in America, since the very words of Jefferson’s declaration would, in time, come to embody the strongest argument for the racial equality that we have been stumbling our way towards for the past century and a half.

That Jefferson’s generation couldn’t live up to its own standard is a singular tragedy; their calculated inaction on slavery is directly responsible for many millions of deaths and more misery than any of us could ever fully appreciate.  That these same men can simultaneously be held up as national heroes and beacons of liberty is the sort of grand irony that perhaps only a place like the United States is at once sturdy and deluded enough to withstand.

As ever, America is a land of contradiction and hypocrisy, and if we don’t spent a good deal of July 4 reflecting on this, then we are not treating our country with the integrity it deserves.

Further, by acknowledging the impossibly compromised choice with which our founders were confronted, we are reminded that there is no such thing as an easy solution to a seismic problem.  Every major political decision involves a trade-off of one sort or another, and if you enter a negotiation expecting to get everything you want, you just may wind up with nothing at all.

The Founding Fathers sought independence, and the price turned out to be the life of every black person born between 1700 and 1865.  In that moment—not knowing how bad things would get—they believed it was worth it.  Today—with all the benefit of hindsight—are we yet prepared to say they were right?

A Spot of Revolution

On June 23, the people of Great Britain voted narrowly to remove themselves from the European Union.  Although the decision occurred 11 days shy of July 4, many of those in favor of this so-called “Brexit” have interpreted it as Britain’s own declaration of independence.  Prominent English politicians Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have framed it as such, as has noted historian Sarah Palin, who went so far as to draw a straight line from Britons’ rebellion against the EU to the American rebellion of 1776 that we will be duly celebrating six days hence.

While there may indeed be superficial similarities between these two politically seismic events—in this of all weeks, such comparisons are hard to resist—the truth is that we have far more to learn from what makes them different than from what ties them together.

Chief among these differences—or at least the most ironic—is that this new British separation from Europe came about through democratic means and reflects the unambiguous will of the people.  On both counts, the American Revolution most assuredly did not.

It’s an easy thing to forget, but the process by which a free and independent United States of America emerged from the tentacles of an overreaching, overtaxing British Empire was about as far from pure democracy as such an act could be and was, by all accounts, both undesired and unpopular among the inhabitants of the 13 colonies at the time.

Although formal opinion polls did not exist at the end of the 18th century (too much work for the horses), no less than John Adams estimated that the American public in 1776 was probably divided evenly into three groups:  Patriots, loyalists and fence-sitters.  That’s to say that—annoying as taxation without representation undoubtedly was—only about one-third of ordinary colonists agreed that declaring independence was a good idea.

In other words, the momentous decision by a band of renegades to secede from the world’s mightiest empire—an audacious, treasonous and altogether cataclysmic move—was made in defiance of the wishes of a supermajority of the public at large—a fact made all the more glaring by the Declaration’s pretence of creating a democratic, self-governing society that derived its authority from “the consent of the governed.”

The delegates to the Continental Congress, for their part, were selected by the legislatures of their respective colonies—a vaguely republican system for the time—which then enabled said delegates to do whatever the hell they wanted once they got to Philadelphia.

And that—with very few exceptions—is exactly what they did.  By and large, those who voted for independence in July of 1776 did so from a mixture of personal conviction, horse trading with fellow delegates and a general sense of which way the wind was blowing.  In any case, the so-called “will of the people” never really entered into the equation since, for all intents and purposes, the Continental Congress was the people.  (We need hardly add that the Congress was 100 percent male and 100 percent white.)

It’s not that the Founding Fathers were indifferent to public opinion—as the war heated up, securing popular support became essential to sustaining the Continental Army—but they certainly didn’t consider it legally binding.  In the opening decade of the American republic, the word “democratic” was an epithet that conjured images of mobs and anarchists who reacted to leaders they didn’t like by burning them in effigy.  The aforementioned John Adams went to his grave believing his finest moment as president was to have averted war with France in 1800 despite overwhelming popular support for just such a war.  For Adams, defying the will of the people was the ultimate badge of honor, and hindsight has surely borne him out.

Of course, to marinate in the facts of America’s founding is to reach some extremely ambivalent conclusions about democracy, realizing, as we must, that those men in wigs and puffy shirts got along just fine without it.  In a way, the Founding Fathers ruined it for everyone by being so exceptional:  In the hands of anyone else, the plainly elitist nature of the Continental Congress—and later the Constitutional Convention—would’ve flatly negated the very principles it claimed to stand for and strangled our infant nation before it ever had a chance to breathe.

However, because the founders were so faithful to the cause of liberty and freedom—and not merely to their own self-interests—they somehow managed to negotiate the contradictions their experience in nation-building required and allow future generations to live up the standards that they themselves did not.

In the Western world today, democracy through popular vote is taken more or less for granted, while major decisions made behind closed doors are looked upon with high skepticism, if not outright contempt.  Yet we cannot ignore the reality, in the U.S. and U.K. alike, that almost every political decision—major and minor—is enacted not by “the people” but rather by representatives of the people who, in the end, behave however they damn well please, assuming—often correctly—that they will never be held to account when and if things go wrong.

In some quarters, this week’s “Brexit” vote has been hailed as a heroic popular revolt against such elitism, while in others it has been seen as a cautionary tale against allowing direct democracy to carry the day.  (Not that these interpretations are necessarily mutually exclusive.)

The million-dollar question, in any case, is whether popular rule is the solution to all conflicts or whether, instead, there are some questions that are simply too important to be decided by the whim of the majority.  In a typically cutting op-ed in Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi argues for the former, writing, “If you believe there’s such a thing as ‘too much democracy,’ you probably don’t believe in democracy at all.”  Taibbi was responding, in part, to a Boston Globe op-ed by Harvard professor Kenneth Rogoff, who observed, “Since ancient times, philosophers have tried to devise systems to try to balance the strengths of majority rule against the need to ensure that informed parties get a larger say in critical decisions.”

The natural follow-up, then, is who exactly are these “informed parties” and what qualifies them as such?  For that matter, how do we establish which decisions are “critical” and which are less so?

We might agree that some citizens are smarter and wiser than others and that direct democracy is too unwieldy to be exercised on a daily basis, but how do we reconcile these assumptions with the democratic ideal that no citizen’s voice is valued higher than any other?  The short answer—based on some 240 years of experience on this side of the Atlantic—is that we don’t reconcile at all.  We simply learn to live with the contradiction.

For now, we can occupy ourselves with the double irony that, on the question of declaring independence of one form or another, America employed elitism in the service of promoting democracy, while Britain employed democracy in reasserting its identity as a nation that is still technically ruled by a monarch.  Karl Marx famously said history repeats itself “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”  Depending how the next few months go, “Brexit” may unleash both at the same time.

We Will Survive

Given the choice, which of the following would be the more unnerving prospect:  That Donald Trump becomes president and effectively destroys the entire world order, or that Trump becomes president and does a perfectly decent job?

Over the past year, we Trump skeptics have spent so much time imagining the catastrophic consequences of a theoretical Trump presidency that it has barely crossed our minds that he just might be up to the task—or, more precisely, that our fears of what his leadership style would mean for the future have been unduly exaggerated.  That upon becoming the most powerful person on Earth, Trump might finally come to his senses and behave in a more cautious, dignified manner on the world stage.

Admittedly, the reason none of us has entertained this notion is that everything Trump has ever said and done has indicated the exact opposite.  Whether through his infantile personality, his lack of basic knowledge about policy or his propensity for flying into a tizzy whenever anyone calls him out—especially if that person is a woman—Trump has made it impossible for any reasonable observer to give him the benefit of the doubt:  The preponderance of the evidence suggests a disaster in the making.

But what if we’re wrong?  What if Trump surprises us by proving himself a competent, solid leader who manages America’s foreign and domestic affairs with grace, fortitude and good humor?  What if he lays aside his rougher edges and characteristic bile and somehow wills himself into an able statesman?

Or—if that scenario seems too outlandish—suppose he abandons some of his baser instincts in the Oval Office and muddles through four years of minor accomplishments and periodic setbacks, amounting to a presidency that, while hardly great, is finally regarded as a respectable effort and a mere blip in the ongoing saga of republican governance?

Indeed, the prospect of a boring, so-so performance from this man seems to be the one eventuality that both Trump’s fans and haters neither want nor expect—perhaps because it simply doesn’t compute that such an explosive character could possibly be middling.  In the hysterical environment in which we live, today’s electorate is convinced that a President Trump would be either a towering success or a catastrophic failure.  (We should add that, given the differing values of these two camps, it’s possible that, four years hence, both will claim to have been correct.)

And yet, if history teaches us anything, it’s that the U.S. presidency is a fundamentally stable and moderating institution—strong enough to endure even the likes of one Donald Trump.

Taking a cursory view of all U.S. presidents to date, we find that a small handful were truly great, an equally small handful were truly terrible, while the remaining several dozen landed in the giant chasm in between.

What we find in all cases, however, is that not a single one of those 43 men has caused the American republic to collapse or the entire planet to explode—i.e. the two things that half the country more or less assumes will happen under a President Trump.

Whether the presiding administration engaged in open bribery (e.g. Grant and Harding), imperial overreach (Johnson and Bush), nuclear hot potato (Truman and Kennedy) or domestic genocide (Andrew effing Jackson), the country itself managed to endure—both while and after such dangerous men stood at the helm.  To date, no chief executive (try as they might) has succeeded in fully negating the principles of the Constitution.

(For our purposes, we’ll allow that the Civil War—the closest America ever came to disintegrating—was the culmination of a 73-year-old argument as to what those principles actually were, and was not the fault of a single leader.)

The short explanation for our system’s remarkable buoyancy is that the Founding Fathers hit the jackpot by dividing the federal government into three equal branches, with a bicameral legislature and a Supreme Court acting as checks on executive power.  This way, whenever the president does go too far, the remaining branches are empowered to rein him in and/or throw him out until Constitutional equilibrium is restored.  While this arrangement has never operated flawlessly and the power of the presidency has grown with each passing administration, it has worked just well enough to keep things chugging along.

Now, it’s possible that the United States has merely experienced 229 consecutive years of dumb luck and that Trump is now the right guy at the right time to give the Constitution that one final nudge over the cliff.  He certainly professes to care not a whit about the separation of powers, and we have every obligation to take him at his word.

Or rather, we don’t, because when has Trump’s word ever meant anything?

Don’t forget the one thing about Trump that we know for sure:  Whatever he says today has no bearing on what he might say tomorrow.  On matters related to policy and governing, he plainly doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about and, when asked a direct question, he reflexively spits out the first thought that pops into his head, no matter how incompatible it might be with all his previous statements on the issue—including, in some cases, what he said just a sentence or two earlier.

Nope.  It’s like we’ve been saying for months now:  Trump is the world’s most transparent con man whose only instinct is to say and do whatever he thinks will induce others to bend to his will.  Like every avaricious, status-obsessed windbag before him, he cares nothing for the public good except for how it might enrich him personally.

But here’s the thing:  Trump is not the first presidential candidate driven almost exclusively by narcissism and greed, nor would he be the first commander-in-chief bereft of a basic sense of right and wrong.

These are hardly attractive qualities in a leader of the free world, but they are not—in and of themselves—a hindrance to a competent and fruitful presidency, and even failed presidents can do genuinely good things.  Consider, for instance, that although Richard Nixon gave the world Watergate and four decades of cynicism about public officials, he still found time to open China and establish the EPA.  Or that while George W. Bush was unwittingly fostering a terrorist breeding ground in the Middle East, he was simultaneously funneling billions of dollars to diseased-ravaged countries in Africa, reportedly saving over one million lives and counting.

Long story short (too late?):  Just as Trump himself should quit being so inanely confident about his ability to foster a magical new American Eden, so should we dial back our own assumptions that, if given the chance, he would fail in a million different ways—or worse, that he would “succeed” in the most frightening possible sense.

It’s not that Trump has shown any real propensity for intellectual growth (he hasn’t), or that his whole candidacy has been an elaborate performance masking a much more serious and learned man (if so, he hides it well).

Rather, it’s that the presidency—that most peculiar of institutions—has a way of scrambling the expectations of every person who enters into it and every citizen who observes the machinations therein.  Like no other job on Earth, it has a way of turning great men into cowards and mediocrities into legends.

The truth is that we can’t know what kind of president someone will be until it’s too late to stop them.  With Trump—arguably the most erratic person to have sought the job in any of our lifetimes—this uncomfortable fact becomes all the more self-evident.  If we agree that he is inherently unpredictable, we must allow for the possibility that, once in office, he will do things that we have thus far failed to predict, and that we just might be pleasantly surprised by the results.