Questions For Hillary and Donald

The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is Monday, September 26, at 9pm.  Here are some questions I would like to ask both candidates:

Mrs. Clinton:  On policy, do voters have any reason to think you won’t be serving President Obama’s third term?

Mr. Trump:  Is it true—as one of your ex-wives has claimed—that you once kept a book of Hitler’s speeches as your bedside reading?  If so, what did you learn from them?

Mrs. Clinton:  You have said there is no conflict between your pledge to regulate big banks and the fact that you have received millions of dollars in speaking fees from those same banks.  Do you truly not understand why many Americans cannot take your “tough on Wall Street” posture seriously?

Mr. Trump:  You have praised President Eisenhower’s “Operation Wetback,” which resulted in hundreds of U.S. citizens being illegally detained and deported because they were of Mexican descent.  Do you also support President Roosevelt’s initiative to hold more than 100,000 U.S. citizens in internment camps because they were of Japanese descent?

Mrs. Clinton:  You consider yourself a champion of the LGBT community.  However, you publicly opposed full marriage rights for same-sex couples until March 2013—exactly one month after retiring as Secretary of State.  When did you decide that gay people are equal to straight people with regards to marriage, and did it ever cross your mind that supporting marriage equality as America’s chief diplomat might have been helpful to the LGBT community?

Mr. Trump:  Earlier this year, you suggested that any woman who has had an abortion should be punished in some way.  Do you still think that today?  If not, what made you change your mind?

Mrs. Clinton:  You have expressed regret for saying that one-half of Trump’s supporters constitute a “basket of deplorables.”  Upon reflection, what do you believe the true figure to be, and how will you win the trust of those people once in office?

Mr. Trump:  When physical violence erupted at several of your campaign rallies, you lamented how such clashes don’t happen more often, saying, “Nobody wants to hurt each other anymore.”  How do you reconcile this philosophy with your pledge to bring “law and order” to America’s most violent cities?

Mrs. Clinton:  Why do you think you lost the 2008 Democratic primaries to Barack Obama?  If you lose the 2016 election to Trump, do you think it will be for the same reasons?

Mr. Trump:  In an interview, you claimed to be a highly religious person on the grounds that many evangelical Christians support you.  Are you religious in any other respect?

Mrs. Clinton:  If it were politically feasible, would you repeal the Second Amendment?

Mr. Trump:  You have disavowed the support of former KKK grand wizard David Duke.  Is there anything you two actually disagree about?

Mrs. Clinton:  Are you ever concerned about your propensity for appearing to have violated the law, even when, in fact, you haven’t?  Whom do you most blame for this perception—the voters or yourself?

Mr. Trump:  If a poll came out tomorrow saying that a majority of your supporters now oppose building a wall along the Mexican border, would you drop the whole idea and never mention it again?

Mrs. Clinton:  You have said you regret using a private e-mail server because of all the trouble it has caused your campaign.  Is that the only reason for your regret?

Mr. Trump:  You say you have a plan to defeat ISIS, but you intend to keep it a secret until after you win the election.  If Clinton wins instead, are you going to keep it a secret from her as well?

Mrs. Clinton:  Is there any major issue about which you think the majority of the public is dead wrong?  If so, have you ever said so in public?

Mr. Trump:  In your convention speech, you said, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”  If that’s the case, why didn’t you run in 2012?  Or 2008?  Or 2004?

Mrs. Clinton:  During the primaries, you opposed Bernie Sanders’s plan to make all public colleges tuition-free, arguing it would just be too darned expensive.  If you believed, in 2003, that it was worth funding the Iraq War with money we didn’t have, why doesn’t the same standard apply to higher education?

Mr. Trump:  You once said, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do.”  Where did you come by this information and why haven’t you shared it with the generals?

Mrs. Clinton:  In recently hacked e-mails, Colin Powell wrote of you, “Everything [she] touches she kind of screws up with hubris.”  Did it surprise you to read this?

Mr. Trump:  The screenwriter of the Back of the Future movies recently revealed that the character Biff Tannen was largely based on you.  Do you take this as a compliment?

Mrs. Clinton:  Have you ever consciously lied to the American people?  If so, why?

Mr. Trump:  Based on how casually and frequently you have completely reversed your position on one issue after another, why should anyone believe a single word you say?

Mrs. Clinton:  When you entered this race, did it ever occur to you that you might lose?

Mr. Trump:  When you entered this race, did it ever occur to you that you might win?

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Only One of Them Is Evil

Over the last few days, amidst the near-universal condemnation of all things Donald Trump, two provocative and interrelated questions have stealthily crossed my desk.

First:  Is there anything Hillary Clinton could say or do that would prevent us from voting for her for president?

And second:  How would we react if the presidential election were a contest between Donald Trump and David Duke?

The latter was posed by Dr. Cornel West during last Friday’s episode of Real Time with Bill Maher.  I don’t recall where I came upon the former, although I’m guessing its author has a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker featured prominently on his or her vehicle.

While both queries were largely rhetorical—a means of confronting Hillary Clinton supporters for their perceived capitulation to the lesser-evil principle in American politics—I think it’s worth taking them seriously, if only to demonstrate how insufferably smug and vacuous they truly are.

What could Hillary do to lose my vote, you ask?  I don’t know, maybe if she proposed banning all Muslims from the United States.  Or suggested women should be jailed for having abortions.  Or belittled a former prisoner of war.  Or mocked a disabled journalist.  Or casually implied that she desires sexual relations with her daughter and then touched said daughter in a particularly creepy fashion during the Democratic National Convention.

Yup, I imagine if the Democratic Party nominee for president did any of the above during the next three months, I would have serious reservations about supporting her for the highest office in the land, since they would cast grave doubts about her qualifications, her judgment and her very sanity for a job that requires copious amounts of all three.

However, I don’t anticipate that any of the above will occur, since the market for grotesquely unprofessional behavior has already been cornered by the very man that Clinton is running against.

Indeed, it’s hard to conceive a moment in which Hillary’s personal shortcomings have been less relevant to the national conversation—and less problematic in the broader scheme of things—than in her present cage match with Donald Trump.  Like it or not, all elections are a choice between two howling imperfections, forcing you to temper your expectations and tweak your ideals to conform to the options immediately before you.  If the outsized absurdity of Trump’s character and behavior has produced any lasting value, it has been to underline how mundane Clinton’s own faults are by comparison.

This is not to say that those faults are not troubling, or that we should simply ignore them and hope they magically go away.  They are, we shouldn’t and they won’t.

But we also need to recognize the difference between patrolling a candidate’s failings and condemning her entire candidacy on the basis of those failings.  We need to admit, say, that Hillary has a disturbingly long record of fudging the truth of a situation—often against her own interests—while also acknowledging that this tendency—so common among all politicians—does not pose an existential threat to the republic.

Arguably the key insight of the whole 2016 election is that Trump’s collected flaws do rise to the level of disqualifying him from high office, while Clinton’s manifestly do not.  To quote Andrew Sullivan—a man who has detested Clinton as vehemently as any blogger has detested anyone:  “[Clinton] is a mediocre politician in our liberal democratic system.  Trump is a direct, grave and imminent threat to the very system itself.  That’s the essential choice this year.  It is the easiest choice in my lifetime.”

That brings us to Cornel West—a Bernie Sanders partisan now leaning toward Jill Stein—who tried to knock some sense into Clintonistas by theorizing a race between Trump and David Duke, the notorious former Klansman who announced a U.S. Senate run at the same time that he endorsed Trump for president.

By presenting this hypothetical match-up of one repugnant, race-baiting troll against another, West was perhaps trying to justify the reluctance of certain Sanders loyalists to get behind Clinton—a woman who, in their view, is simply too unappealing to support under any circumstances.  In other words, West was suggesting that the imperative to back the “lesser of two evils” need not apply if you consider both options to be genuinely, wholly evil.

It’s a noble argument—a defense of retaining one’s humanity in the face of political inhumanity—but it’s also completely irrelevant to the election actually occurring in the real world—or, for that matter, any election that has occurred ever.

Hillary Clinton is not David Duke, nor has anyone—including Cornel West—suggested she is.  She is paranoid, equivocating, disingenuous and compromised, but none of those traits rises (or falls) to the level of abject evil.  They are irritating but not beyond the pale, and we need to accept the giant gulf that separates one from the other.

As for this absurd hypothetical—what if the Democrats managed to nominate a candidate as irredeemably awful as Trump?—the question for voters would remain the same:  Which nominee is more likely to leave the country better off than when he or she found it?

Contrary to apparent popular belief, there is no such thing as two equally bad options.  As Bill Maher has frequently quipped, one choice is always worse than the other, and it’s the duty of all responsible Americans to identify which is which.  Hitler was worse than Stalin in 1941, and no amount of moral indignation could’ve negated the imperative of picking the least-worst side when there was no viable alternative.  In that moment, the facts on the ground were more important than how we might’ve felt about them under ideal circumstances.

As such, there is something profoundly annoying—and ultimately cowardly—about this desire to find a trap door beneath any ethically difficult decision.  To say, for instance, “This election is too unpleasant, so I’m just going to skip it.”  Or—in the case of sudden converts to Jill Stein or Gary Johnson—to say, “I cannot handle the consequences of choosing between the two people who could actually win, so instead I’m going to hide behind someone who obviously can’t, then congratulate myself for not being part of the problem.”

Sorry, but in doing that, you are part of the problem.  In our two-party electoral system—an arrangement that persists regardless of your opinion of it—opting for a third-party candidate is not a choice; it’s a way of avoiding a choice.  If you truly subscribe to Green or Libertarian principles—as Dan Savage and others have argued—the time for coalition-building is the four-year period in between presidential elections, not the three-month window from now to November when you’ve suddenly realized that neither the Democrats nor Republicans are quite to your liking.

There’s more to life than getting everything you want and throwing a tantrum when you don’t.  All of my demands are certainly not being met this election season, and neither are anyone else’s.

So what do you do?  You get over it.  You go to war with the candidates you have—not the candidates you wanted at the beginning of the primaries, nor the candidates you’d put forward if you were made master of the universe.

Democracy is always and forever a clash between bad and worse.  In this election, in this year, it’s not a matter of one nominee being less evil than the other.  It’s a matter of one being horrible and the other being good enough.

Springtime For Donald (and the GOP)

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

Donald Trump is The Producers come to life.

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

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

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

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

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

A lunatic named Trump, that’s who.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The G Word

Today in Germany, it’s against the law to deny the existence of the Holocaust.

Today in Turkey, it’s against the law to affirm the existence of the Holocaust.

We’re talking here about two different Holocausts, but the point is the same:  Some countries have the courage to fess up to past atrocities, while others are abject cowards.

For us Americans, the responsibility to acknowledge other countries’ grievous sins would seemingly be straightforward.  And yet, in practice, it has become so fraught and complicated that you’d think we’d committed the crimes ourselves.

I’m speaking, of course, of the annual disgrace that is the American president’s failure to call the Armenian genocide by its rightful name.

Beginning on April 24, 1915—exactly a century ago—the Ottoman Empire in present-day Turkey began a process of premeditated, systematic murder against Christian Armenians living within its borders.  Generally, this was done either through outright slaughter or through prolonged “death marches,” whereby victims would ultimately starve.

At the start of World War I, Armenians numbered roughly two million within the empire itself.  By 1922, about 400,000 were left.

While there remains a debate about the exact numbers, a broad historical consensus has emerged that what happened to Armenians under the Ottoman Turks was, in fact, genocide.  That is, it was a deliberate attempt to annihilate an entire people on the basis of their ethnicity.

(An interesting linguistic footnote:  The word “genocide” did not exist until 1943.  In 1915, U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau referred to the Ottomans’ treatment of Armenians as “race extermination”—a term that, as Christopher Hitchens observed, is “more electrifying” than the one we now use.)

A century on, the legacy of the Armenian Holocaust is as contentious as ever.  However, the basic facts are only “controversial” in the sense that the basic facts about climate change are “controversial.”  Politicians continue to argue, but among the folks who actually know what they’re talking about—in this case, historians—the science is resoundingly settled.

Which brings us to the unnervingly Orwellian chapter of this story:  The careful refusal by every American president to utter the word “genocide” whenever the subject comes up.

It’s weird and frightening that this is the case, and in more ways than one—even when just considering the present occupant of the Oval Office.

You see, it’s not as if Barack Obama avoids the issue altogether.  Thanks to the efforts of the Armenian community in America and elsewhere, he doesn’t have a choice.

During this centennial week, Obama aides have met with several Armenian-American groups, and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew is in Armenia’s capital to mark the anniversary.  National Security Advisor Susan Rice, meeting with Turkish officials, called for “an open and frank dialogue in Turkey about the atrocities of 1915.”

Nor—while we’re at it—does Obama himself deny the truth that is staring him directly in the face.  In January 2008, as a presidential candidate, he said, “The Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact.”

And yet, in the six-plus years of the Obama administration, the word “genocide” has never passed the lips of any American official.

The explanation for this is depressingly straightforward:  Turkey, a strategic U.S. ally, denies that such a genocide ever took place, and the U.S. is terrified that if we declare otherwise, our relationship with Turkey will suffer irreparable harm.

That’s right:  Our government, in our name, is publicly maintaining a major historical lie in order to placate a foreign country that murdered a million and a half of its own citizens and, a hundred years later, still pretends that it didn’t.

By comparison, just imagine a world in which it was official U.S. policy not to formally recognize an organized plot by Hitler’s Germany to eradicate the Jewish population of Eastern Europe.  (To say nothing of the continent’s gays, Gypsies, Poles and others.)  Imagine if Germany today claimed that the six million Jewish casualties were essentially a fog-of-war coincidence.  Imagine if Angela Merkel arrested and jailed anyone who implied otherwise and the U.S. did nothing meaningful to stop her.

We don’t need to imagine it.  Replace “Germany” with “Turkey” and “Jews” with “Armenians,” and you’re left, more or less, with the world we have.

The Turkish government acknowledges that a great many Armenians were killed in the First World War, but denies that it was the Ottomans’ fault.  Further, thanks to Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, anyone who argues to the contrary can be imprisoned for the crime of “denigrating the Turkish Nation.”  By not going all the way in our condemnation, we Americans—the people who are supposed to be leading the world in justice and freedom—allow the practice to continue.

It’s a moral disgrace by all involved—an insult to Armenians, to history and to truth itself.  And everybody knows it.

That’s the creepiest part:  It’s not just that so many officials are saying something untrue.  They’re saying something untrue that everybody knows is untrue.

It’s the very essence of totalitarianism:  Create your own reality and exert no effort in making anyone believe it.

In actual dictatorships, this strategy works because the leaders wield absolute control over their citizens.  (To wit:  If you’re being starved, tortured, raped, etc., the fact that your government is also duplicitous is not a particularly high concern.)

On the other hand, such transparent dishonesty never works in democracies like ours, because our system is designed to make it impossible.  So long as we retain the freedom of expression, the separation of powers and a reasonably competent press corps, the truth will (eventually) rise to the surface.

So the president will eventually come around on this issue, and the Republic of Turkey will just have to deal with it.

Until that happens, however, Obama’s ongoing squeamishness will continue to validate the pessimism of many voters that the promise of “change” in Washington is an illusion.  That campaign pledges, however sincere at the time, will always ultimately be overruled by entrenched interests at home and abroad.  That insurgents who vow to “shake things up” are no match for the status quo.

To be sure, there’s no point in being naïve about these things.  If you’re the leader of the free world, you can’t just go insulting other countries willy-nilly and expect nothing bad to happen in return.  You have to accept the world as it is, politics is the art of the possible, blah blah blah.

But does the bar for political pragmatism really have to be set this low?  By acceding to other nations’ fantasies about the facts of history, aren’t we diminishing not just history but ourselves?  Are we not paying a random that any other wrongheaded country could demand as well?

Why would we do this?  Why should the bad guys win?

It’s certainly not inevitable.  Just look at Germany.

A mere seven decades after committing the most horrible crime against humanity in modern times, the Federal Republic of Germany stands not just as a stable, functioning, open society, but as Europe’s premier economic power and—crucially—just about as un-anti-Semitic as it’s possible for such a country to be.

Of course, in a nation so large, pockets of anti-Jewish sentiment still percolate, some of which manifest themselves through violence.  However, the overall prevalence of German anti-Semitism today is no greater than that of most other nations in Western Europe, and is considerably smaller than some (looking at you, France).

More to the point:  Since completely reinventing itself during and after the Cold War, Germany, in its official acts, has never stopped apologizing for its wretched past, even going so far (as I noted earlier) of punishing anyone who “approves of, denies or belittles an act committed under the rule of National Socialism,” along with anyone who “assaults the human dignity of others by insulting, maliciously maligning, or defaming segments of the population.”  This might explain why the country’s Jewish population doubled in the first five years after reunification, and then doubled again over the next decade and a half.

In America, of course, those sorts of laws would be completely unconstitutional, as the First Amendment guarantees the right to insult whoever you want.  However, as both a Jew and a defender of human dignity, I appreciate the sentiment.  Better to outlaw lies than truth.

This is all to say that Turkey will ultimately come to terms with the darkest period in its history, and all the reconciliation that it entails.  We can’t be sure how long it will take for such a proud nation to own up to its past cruelties.  But there is one thing of which we can be sure:  It will have no reason to take that leap until it stops being enabled into complacency by superpowers like us.