Sweet ’16

We might agree that 2016 was nobody’s idea of a good time.  Certainly, any year that sees the death of Snape and the rise of Voldemort lends credence to Ross Douthat’s recent quip that “history has become a fever dream from which we are struggling to awake.”

However, in the spirit of holiday cheer—and in defiance of the natural urge to swallow a cyanide capsule or play Russian roulette around an empty table—I will close out my year with a reflection on the handful of people who made 2016 bearable.  Some of these were virtually unknown to me before January 1, and yet today I cannot imagine my life in their absence.  It just goes to show that every 12-month period, no matter how depressing, contains certain hidden pleasures that, in the fullness of time, add up to something resembling a life well-lived.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA

For reasons mostly beyond my control, I haven’t yet seen Hamilton live at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York.  Indeed, I haven’t seen it anywhere except through bootleg clips on YouTube and the PBS special Hamilton’s America, which aired earlier this fall.

But I have heard Lin-Manuel Miranda’s visionary historical epic more frequently than any album this year (if not ever), and I think it’s fair to say that after 30 or 40 rounds of the rap battles, R&B ballads and other assorted musical revisionism that comprise this singular cultural behemoth, one has “experienced” Hamilton as deeply as humanly possible short of shelling out the thousands of dollars required for an actual goddamned ticket.

In any case, the influence of Lin-Manuel Miranda on my life in 2016—possibly the greatest of any nationally-known individual—was not just the show itself, but all the treasure hunting that Miranda’s sublime lyricism inspired.  In addition to teaching me more about rap and hip-hop than I’d ever known (or cared to know) before, Hamilton sent me to the history section of the library with a ferocity I wish I’d possessed in college.

Plowing through the Ron Chernow epic that got this whole trouble started—followed by Chernow’s equally magisterial 2011 biography of George Washington—I progressed to Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers and Revolutionary Summer, followed by the likes of Edmund Morgan and Annette Gordon-Reed and others, and before you knew it, I felt I understood America’s founding generation almost as well as the average middle school student from the Bronx whose class gets to see Hamilton for free on a Wednesday afternoon.  What a country.

TA-NEHISI COATES

Apart from anything else, 2016 was the year I became officially embarrassed to be a white man in America.  If the election of Trump was the final straw—and it was—there is no overstating the impact of The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates in laying the historical foundation for why America still hasn’t solved racism more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War.

One answer to this—long argued by Coates and others and seemingly proved by the rise of Trump—is the enduring assumption of white privilege.  Without batting an eye, white people can spend 400 years denying black people life, liberty, voting rights, decent housing and access to basic municipal services, but at the first mention of “affirmative action” or “Black Lives Matter,” suddenly the country is engaged in a race war and white people are the most oppressed group in America.

It’s enough to make a cat laugh, and reading Coates—as breathtakingly beautiful a stylist in prose as Miranda is in poetry—has removed any possibility (if one existed) of my embracing this white supremacist fantasy at any point in the future.

For me, this began with Coates’ essay, “The Case for Reparations,” published in The Atlantic in the summer of 2014, continued with his bestselling memoir, Between the World and Me, and culminated just this month in his newest Atlantic piece, “My President Was Black,” which tries to reconcile America’s continued institutional racism with the fact that Barack Obama was elected president twice.

Just as important—as with Lin-Manuel—were the myriad works by other writers that Coates’ own writing forced me to seek out—particularly those of James Baldwin, whose novels Another Country and Giovanni’s Room were among the most pleasurable reads of my year and whose essay collections Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time were among the most illuminating.

WESLEY MORRIS AND JENNA WORTHAM

A late adopter of virtually everything, I still haven’t fully assimilated the concept of podcasts to my day-to-day life.  However, early in the fall, I stumbled upon “Still Processing,” hosted by the New York Times, and I haven’t missed an episode since.

The podcast is a weekly conversation between Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham, two young-ish feature writers for New York Times Magazine, with each installment examining some aspect or other of contemporary American culture, be it music, film, TV, sports, politics or—as is often the case—the intersection of all the above.

As with other great cultural commentators, the appeal of Morris and Wortham hinges on their impeccable taste, their engaging conversational style and, most of all, the outside-the-box manner in which they each view the world around them.  (In 2012, as a Boston Globe film critic, Morris was recognized with the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.)

In “Still Processing,” this gift manifests itself through either discussing subjects that no one else is paying attention to, or discussing popular subjects through a unique and unorthodox lens.  In the 16 episodes to date, Morris and Wortham have tackled everything from transgender identity to the new Smithsonian Museum of African-American History to O.J. Simpson to Moonlight to the social history of the black penis to the feminist supernova that is Beyoncé.

As you can tell from that list, certain themes have a way of popping up again and again, which tracks with Jon Stewart’s great insight—adopted by Larry Wilmore upon creating The Nightly Show—that “every important story in America has either race, class or gender hiding underneath it.”  To the extent that we knew this all along, 2016 might go down as the year we officially stopped pretending otherwise.

Elsewhere, Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone provided the foul-mouthed gonzo political reporting that has long made him the most deliciously readable commentator in cyberspace.

On late night TV—still the most blissful way to fall asleep without heavy drinking—Samantha Bee became the inner consciousness of American liberals that saw what was happening in the news every day and ran outside to scream into the night.  It’s a shame Bee’s blistering program, Full Frontal, only airs once a week, and that Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show was cancelled.  In the absence of responsible cable news outlets, Bee, Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver and The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah are, collectively, television’s last best hope in explaining to ordinary citizens just what the hell is going on.

(Incidentally, The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert and The Late Late Show’s James Corden are, for my money, the most purely enjoyable late night hosts in the game.  However, in their pitch for middle-of-the-road mass appeal, they are not quite as pointed as their aforementioned rivals—although Colbert has leaned more in that direction since the election.)

Finally, there was Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!  A weekly, hour-long comedic news quiz show on NPR, Wait Wait has been a public radio staple since 1998, but—again, thanks to my tortoise-like reflexes to my cultural surroundings—it was only just recently that it became a regular part of my week.  Hosted by Peter Sagal and featuring a rotating panel of three underemployed writers and comedians cracking jokes about current events, Wait Wait provided a desperately-needed catharsis at the end of each jaw-dropping week of this historic year, making hay of serious world events while going full metal gaga over the silly ones.

Admittedly, by the end, it became awfully hard to tell the difference.

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A Nation of Deplorables

On Monday, I will be casting the third presidential ballot of my life.  (Hurray for early voting!)  Incidentally—and I don’t mean to brag—this will be the third consecutive time that I will not be voting for an alleged sexual predator for the highest office in the land.

True:  In an enlightened, democratic society, you’d think that not having a possible rapist on the ballot would go more or less without saying.  On our better days, we Americans possess a sufficient level of moral outrage not to let that kind of crap occur.

But 2016 has just been one of those years, so instead we’re stuck with a man—and I use that word loosely—who feels so entitled to the bodies of American women (by his own tape-recorded admission) that his only response to multiple allegations of sexual misconduct is to ridicule the looks of his alleged victims.  Say what you will about Bill Clinton (and I will), but he at least had the courtesy to refer to his most famous accuser by name.

With this year’s standards for electability and decency being what they are, I can take a modicum of pride in having resisted the would-be allure of a vulgar, sexist thug as leader of the free world.  Personally, I intend to continue my trend of voting for non-rapists—and, for that matter, non-misogynists—for the remainder of my life as a citizen.  As John Oliver might say, it is literally the least I can do.

And yet, historically, this has not necessarily been the case for many American voters.

In 1996, for instance, some 47 million of my countrymen opted to keep Bill Clinton in the White House, which is to say that 47 million Americans voted for a man who, apart from being a confessed adulterer, has long been accused of sexual assault—a charge to which he has yet to speak a single word in his defense.  To be fair, the rape allegation didn’t become widely known until Clinton’s second term in office, but I can’t help but notice that—nearly two decades after the fact—the 42nd president remains among the most beloved men in public life, particularly within the political party that claims to be the protector of vulnerable and mistreated women.

Am I really the only person experiencing cognitive dissonance over this rather glaring moral contradiction?

Look:  We all know that Donald Trump’s recent attacks on Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadilloes are merely a half-assed attempt to divert attention from Trump’s own horrifying attitudes (and actions) toward women.  But this does not mean that Clinton’s transgressions didn’t occur and that he should not be held to the same standards as every other alleged abuser.

If you believe—as I do—that women who level rape charges tend to be telling the truth, and if you agree that what we know we know about Clinton would suggest that such charges could be true in his case, then you must conclude that continuing to hold up this man, uncritically, as a Democratic Party icon is problematic at best and despicable at worst.

So why do we do it?  Because—as Orwell famously said—it takes a great struggle to see what is directly in front of our own eyes.  Because human beings are exceptionally good at convincing themselves of what should be true, rather than what is true.  Because we prefer myth to reality, particularly when facing the latter head-on would completely undermine the power of the former.

Just as most historians refused to accept that Thomas Jefferson fathered six children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, until a DNA test proved it once and for all, admirers of Bill Clinton will continue to reassure themselves that he didn’t rape Juanita Broaddrick in 1978, because, well, that’s just not the sort of thing he would do.  Indeed, he couldn’t have done it, because what would that say about all the good people who’ve unconditionally supported and admired him all through the years?

Well, we know what it would say:  That they are either fools or co-conspirators—irretrievably naïve or irredeemably wicked.  And so the solution to this quandary—as unsatisfying as it is inevitable—is to either ignore the problem altogether or to rationalize it to within an inch of its life.  By and large, that is exactly what the Democratic Party has done.

With Trump, of course, it has become so gratingly obvious that sexual harassment (if not assault) is exactly the sort of thing he would do—not least because he’s said so himself—that all excuses or evasions on his behalf can (and largely have) been dismissed as sheer farce.  At this moment—with at least 10 different women having corroborated Trump’s boasts about placing his hands where they definitely don’t belong—to hear that “no one has more respect for women” than Trump has all the believability of Michael Palin insisting to John Cleese that his parrot is still alive.

Which brings us to what has—among liberals, at least—been a defining question of this whole ordeal:  What the hell is Natwrong with Donald Trump’s supporters?

By Nate Silver’s most recent estimate, Trump will end up garnering 43 percent of the vote, which translates to roughly 55 million people.  From what I can gather, this most bewitching chunk of Americans can be subdivided into three groups:

  1. So-called “traditional” conservatives who are disgusted by Trump’s antics and don’t really want him to win, but have nonetheless accepted him as an ideological bulwark against a President Hillary Clinton.
  2. Lifelong Republicans who have somehow managed to look past Trump’s defects and, being totally fed up with “the system,” are hopeful he can serve as a human Molotov cocktail who will magically—and single-handedly—change the way Washington works.
  3. The basket of deplorables.

Obviously that final group is wholly beyond repair, but can we really say the same about groups one and two?

Almost without exception, liberals have condemned all Trump voters as equally irrational and repulsive for daring to stand behind such an irrational and repulsive candidate.  While it may be easy and cathartic to dismiss half the country as a bunch of racist loony toons, it’s also a way of avoiding the uncomfortable fact that, had your life circumstances been just a little different—and your political opinions rotated just a few degrees to the right—you, too, may have spent the majority of 2016 engulfed in a painful existential dilemma as to what is the right thing to do—about how much nonsense you’re willing to endure to keep your favored political party in charge of the executive branch.

In light of recent history, we might want to think twice about being so sweepingly judgmental.

Again:  Some 20 years ago, 47 million liberals voted for commander-in-chief a man—Bill Clinton—whom they knew full well was a liar and a womanizer, and it was because they told themselves that, on balance, he nonetheless represented the majority of their interests and values.  And yet now, in 2016, most of those same liberals are berating conservatives for engaging in the exact same moral compromise for the exact same reasons.

Pot, meet kettle.

The truth—the whole truth—is that each and every one of us is susceptible, sooner or later, to vote for a morally repugnant presidential candidate, provided his or her election suits our own political purposes.  Whether they realize it or not, a majority of Americans have done—or soon will do—exactly that, and they (read: we) would be well-advised to check their righteous indignation at the door, or at least to temper it enough so as not to appear like such oblivious, whining hypocrites.

Donald/Duke

Donald Trump has a Klan problem, and its name is David Duke.

Within hours of Trump’s shrieking, hysterical acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last Thursday, Duke—America’s leading white supremacist—tweeted his unconditional approval for the GOP nominee while announcing his own candidacy for the U.S. Senate from his home state of Louisiana.

Duke’s tweet read, “Great Trump Speech, America First! Stop Wars! Defeat the Corrupt elites! Protect our Borders!, Fair Trade! Couldn’t have said it better!”

In a separate statement about his Senate bid, Duke added, “Thousands of special-interest groups stand up for African Americans, Mexican Americans, Jewish Americans, et cetera, et cetera.  The fact is that European Americans need at least one man in the United States Senate—one man in the Congress—who will defend their rights and heritage.”

Duke—for those with short memories—is a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who served three years in the Louisiana House of Representatives and 15 months in prison for tax fraud.  In the meantime, he has run unsuccessfully for just about every public office you could imagine, including two previous bids for the Senate.  In the popular imagination, he is a perennial candidate for America’s racist-in-chief.

Here in 2016, Duke is such a flamboyantly toxic and antiquated character that he would hardly be worth our time, except that—for those with even shorter memories—he has demonstrated a real knack for tethering himself to Donald Trump in a way that Trump cannot quite shake.

Back in February on a radio program, Duke implored white listeners that “voting against Donald Trump at this point is really treason to your heritage”—suggesting, in effect, that Trump is the candidate of and for white supremacists in America.

To the surprise of possibly no one, Trump’s response to this problematic endorsement was pointedly—and tellingly—incoherent.

Initially, Trump appeared to be caught off-guard by Duke’s unsolicited support, reflexively telling a roomful of reporters, “I disavow, OK?”  However, two days later in a satellite interview with Jake Tapper, Trump performed a 180 by claiming not to know anything about Duke and his background and taking umbrage at being put on the spot “to condemn a group that I know nothing about.”  (That group was the KKK.)

Finally, the next morning on The Today Show, Trump asserted—incredibly—that his earpiece hadn’t worked properly and he couldn’t really understand what Tapper was asking him.  From there, he reverted to his original disavowal of Duke’s support, insisting his view on the matter had never wavered—a claim proved demonstrably false by a cursory review of Trump’s own words.

All of which is to say that it took Donald Trump the better part of a week and a series of elaborate linguistic back flips to distance himself from a man who used to burn crosses for a living—a feat that any normal candidate could’ve performed in a matter of seconds.  Then and now, the whole episode begs the question:  What in holy heck in this cretin up to?

In previous iterations of this Trumpian game of rhetorical rope-a-dope on explosive social topics, we have been compelled to wonder whether the Donald is a supreme cynic or a supreme dolt.  Whether a) he is attempting to dupe the American public about the inner workings of his mind, or b) he is a dead ringer for the old Groucho line, “He may talk like an idiot and look like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you.  He really is an idiot.”

At this point, let’s say it doesn’t matter.  Let’s assume—as John Oliver has posited—that there is no functional difference between feigned bigotry and actual bigotry, and thereby conclude that, for all intents and purposes, Donald Trump means what he says.

Which would mean, in short, that he is a bigot.  That by wanting to prohibit all Muslims from entering the United States, he believes Christian lives matter more than Muslim lives.  That by denouncing brutality against police without even mentioning brutality by police, he believes white lives matter more than black lives.  And that by attempting to deport all illegal Mexican immigrants and building a big, stupid wall between our country and theirs, he believes…well, that most Mexicans are murderers and rapists, apparently.

The extraordinary ugliness of these positions seems entirely self-evident to most sentient beings—including most Republicans—but the Republican National Committee cannot abide the full implications of Trump’s consistently outrageous remarks about every religious and ethnic minority under the sun.

Why not?  Because if they did, it would mean that David Duke is right, and that Trump has adopted white supremacy as his party’s central cultural identity.

Shortly after Duke announced his Senate run, RNC chair Reince Priebus tweeted, “David Duke & his hateful bigotry have no place in the Republican Party & the RNC will never support his candidacy under any circumstance.”

Wise and noble words, but how exactly does Priebus account for them?  What standard of decency has Duke violated that the party’s presidential nominee has upheld?  What racist, prejudicial statement has Duke made lately that Donald Trump, in his own way, has not?  If Duke’s hateful bigotry is anathema to Republican Party values, why did that party’s voters anoint a candidate for commander-in-chief whose entire appeal is rooted in hateful bigotry?

By supporting Trump’s candidacy while simultaneously denouncing Duke’s, Priebus and the RNC are practically begging us to call BS, and we are duty-bound to oblige them.  They might (and do) argue that Trump doesn’t really represent Republican values and that their formal support for him is purely in deference to the will of Republican primary voters, but then again, what else could define the true values of a party than the values of its electorate?

Nope.  So long as Trump continues to exist in his present form—so long as he doubles and triples down on a platform of purging America of every type of human species that white men like him don’t approve of—he and David Duke will be a two-for-one deal in American politics, and the GOP itself will grow more fanatically prejudiced by the day.

We should note that yesterday—48 hours after the fact—Trump himself told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that he disavows Duke’s support “as quick as you can say it.”  In case that makes you feel any better, realize that Trump didn’t trouble himself explaining just what it is about Duke that he finds so objectionable—possibly because if he did, he would be making a rod for his own back.

Unbelievable

If the continued existence of Donald Trump has produced any redeeming value for the American culture—and “if” is definitely the correct word—it has been the opportunity for us to argue about Donald Trump.  And for all the millions of words that have been expended on who Trump is and what he represents, we have yet to reach any real consensus on either score—a fact so improbable and bizarre that many of us have failed to even notice it.

Obviously, we’re not talking about whether the Republican presidential nominee is an infantile, boorish windbag.  On that we can all agree.

The more interesting argument—interesting because of its apparent insolubility—is the one that invariably takes the form of, “Is Trump really an X, or does he just play one on TV?”  While the identity of X changes from day to day, it has generally been some variation of “racist,” “misogynist,” “fascist,” “anti-Semite,” “Islamophobe” or some similarly charming personal quirk.

If the list of incidents that have inspired this debate is too enormous to tackle all at once, they have all conveniently followed the same basic pattern.  First, Trump will say (or tweet) something objectively repugnant about some racial, ethnic or social group.  Second, the press will roundly call him out for trafficking in racism, sexism, etc.  Third, Trump will express bewilderment that anyone could possibly infer sinister undertones in the offending remark, since everyone knows he is the least racist/sexist/whatever-ist person in the whole wide world.  Fourth, the press will present him with incontrovertible proof that his comment—by, in extension, he—represents the very definition of rank bigotry of the most obvious and odious form.  And fifth (as Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi has put it), Trump will retort with some variation of, “I know you are, but what am I?”

Certainly, Trump is neither the first nor last presidential candidate to be caught red-handed saying something appalling.  What sets him apart, however, is his fanatical insistence on doubling down, playing innocent and never giving an inch.  No matter how far beyond the pale he has trotted, never once has he apologized for the substance of anything he has said (or endorsed others for saying), always and forever projecting his prejudices onto those accusing him of the same.

Hence the aforementioned mystery:  Is he for real, or is this all a big elaborate performance?

Back in February, HBO’s John Oliver—addressing Trump directly—probably spoke for most of us in asserting, “You are either racist or you are pretending to be, and at some point there is no difference.”  Fair enough, except that Oliver’s formulation makes an implicit assumption that isn’t necessarily warranted—namely, that Trump consciously knows what he’s doing.  By framing the debate as, “Is he a bona fide bigot or is he merely pandering to bigots?” we are granting him a level of guile that he might not actually possess.

To be on the safe side, then, I would pose the $64,000 question as follows:  Deep down, is Trump as ignorant and prejudiced as he appears, or is he wholly oblivious to the consequences of his ugly behavior—i.e. ignorant of his own ignorance?  In other words, when he says, “I don’t think X is sexist” or “I don’t think Y is anti-immigrant,” could he be telling his own version of the truth?  When—to take the most recent example—he retweets an anti-Semitic graphic culled from an anti-Semitic website, is it possible that he is so thick—so utterly lacking in self-awareness and the cultural history of America—that he authentically, in his heart of hearts, doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about?

Given what we know that we know about this wretched excuse for a human being, I think it’s entirely reasonable to conclude that Trump is simply a dolt whose narcissism and gall preludes him from seeing what’s directly in front of his nose.  That he is such a profound sociopath that the very notion of causing someone offense—and needing to make amends for it—is totally alien to his way of seeing the world.

On the other hand, because we also know of his bald cynicism and general low regard for the American public—paired with his undeniable ability to tap into his supporters’ most violent passions and fears—it would require a massive leap of faith to take Trump at his word that he doesn’t perceive any racial or ethnic dimension to what is driving Republican voters so crazy in the first place.

The conventional wisdom is that Trump is trying to have it both ways:  He panders to the GOP base by speaking their own hateful language, then proceeds to placate everyone else by denying he did any such thing.  That—much like on his reality TV shows—he is playing out his fantasy as a devious puppet master who thinks he’s the cleverest person in the room.

But if that’s really what he’s up to, then why has he done such a lousy job of hiding it?  If the idea is to blow racial “dog whistles” that only his supporters can hear, why is it so easy for the rest of us to hear them as well?  Does he truly think the general public is that naïve?  Who’s fooling who?

In 1996, historian Joseph Ellis wrote a momentous biography of Thomas Jefferson, American Sphinx, which argued that our country’s most brazenly duplicitous founding father was able to reside comfortably on both sides of innumerable issues thanks to an elaborate, lifelong game of self-deception—as Ellis put it, by “essentially playing hide-and-seek within himself.”  That is, Jefferson could say or write something one day, then totally deny having done so the next day, and deem himself to be telling the truth both times.  That he was, in effect, an early adopter of the George Costanza maxim, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”

Having just recently discovered Ellis’s book, I now wonder if Trump’s mind operates in much the same way.  Whether it’s likely that, through his many decades as an amoral businessman, he has trained himself to lie in a manner that manages to deceive even himself.  That when he says “believe me”—as he does every time he says something completely unbelievable—his boundless self-confidence comes not from flagrant dishonesty so much as from having drunk his own Kool-Aid.

Accepting this appraisal of Trump’s character—this odd combination of obliviousness and compartmentalization—it becomes plausible that he would see a Star of David superimposed over a pile of money, not realize its anti-Semitic connotations and, when confronted with them, work backwards from “I’m a wonderful person who would never do anything anti-Semitic” to “Therefore, this graphic can’t be anti-Semitic, either.”  It goes without saying that this approach to reality does not permit the introduction of contradictory evidence, and that is where all conflict begins.

As for the John Oliver question—Does it really matter if Trump’s bigotry is genuine or inadvertent?—I would argue it would certainly make a difference if he became president.  Deliberate, open prejudice—for all the misery it wreaks on society—has the one advantage of being, well, deliberate.  If Trump is fully cognizant of how offensive his antics are, it means he is capable—at least in theory—of reining himself in.

However, if he is so blind to basic social etiquette that he can’t even recognize racism when he sees it, then he couldn’t possibly be expected to become a less awful person, since—in his own mind—he would have no reason to do so.

Based on the events of the last year, I think we may finally have found the secret to what makes Donald Trump tick.

The Battle of New York

Back in January, Ted Cruz floated a novel, but pointed, line of attack against Republican frontrunner Donald Trump:  The latter shouldn’t be his party’s standard bearer, Cruz argued, on the grounds that he represents “New York values.”

Now that it appears Trump will, in fact, be the GOP nominee and will likely square off against fellow New Yorker Hillary Clinton in the fall, we might as well take a moment to glance at Cruz’s diagnosis and say, “Well, so much for that.”

If things continue on their current trajectory—an admittedly dubious assumption—the 2016 election will not merely be a showcase for so-called New York values:  It will be an outright endorsement of and/or surrender to the same.

That may seem like an unlikely and counterintuitive conclusion to draw at this particular moment in history, but there you have it.  Donald Trump was born in Queens in 1946 and has never identified with any other metropolis, while Hillary Clinton moved her family to nearby Chappaqua in the fall of 1999 and has held court in and around there ever since.

For all intents and purposes—for better and for worse—a Trump-Clinton race would be a Subway Series for the soul of America, during which the very notion of “New York values” would be fairly up for grabs, demonstrating yet again that the five boroughs do not comprise the Greatest City in the World by accident and that if you want to truly understand America, you can’t do much better than waking up in the city that never sleeps.

There’s certainly no great mystery as to why New York, of all places, has produced such a disproportionate stock of serious presidential contenders through the years.  (Since 1904, New Yorkers have run against each other in three different presidential elections.)  The city, forever and always, is such a crowded, competitive, high-stakes environment for anyone with high ambitions—be they political, financial or cultural—that it’s only natural for someone who finds any measure of success there to think he or she has the mettle to conquer the rest of the universe as well.

In this respect, Ted Cruz is absolutely right about Donald Trump embodying the city from whence he came.  After all, what could be more of a singularly New York sensibility than buying up zillions of dollars of precious Manhattan real estate, slapping your name on every last inch of it, and then sitting in a room thinking, “You know, it’s about time that I really made something of my life”?

By all means, not every inhabitant of this town harbors such an absurd, colossal level of self-regard—such a hunger to expand their brand and rule the world in every way they know how.  And even among those who do, few have such a comically-inflated ego or speak in such horrifyingly crude, prejudicial tones.  For every arrogant blowhard like Trump or Michael Bloomberg, the city also produces such luminous national treasures as Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose seismic new musical Hamilton reflects the city at its most noble:  A beacon of opportunity, welcoming to immigrants, artists, thinkers and revolutionaries.

Indeed, New York City is nothing if not a million different things at once, attracting a million different types of people, each finding his or her own way in the world.  That’s the beauty and the madness of the place and the primary reason that folks from all over the world have been flocking there since the Dutch Republic first landed in 1624.

If Trump represents one strand of what New York symbolizes, Hillary Clinton represents another strand entirely—a strand, oddly enough, that comes pretty close to the definition offered by Ted Cruz.

Said Cruz during a Republican debate, “Everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro-gay marriage [and] focus around money and the media.”

Cruz was attacking Trump, not Clinton, but when it comes to the latter, I’d say Cruz was pretty much on the money.

While Hillary Clinton took a bit longer to defend the rights and dignity of gay people than many in her party would have liked, she is now in perfect harmony with the supermajority of New Yorkers on that issue.  Meanwhile, her support for abortion rights has been unerring and unquestioned, as have her views on most other socially liberal causes.

As for the presence of “money and the media”:  You bet your sweet bippy.

Since her national debut as First Lady-in-waiting in 1992, Hillary has been as much of a media character as any other political figure.  Throughout the myriad phases of her public life, newspapers, TV shows and the interwebs have built her up every bit as much as they have torn her down.  As with Trump now, Clinton’s relationship with the press has always been mutually beneficial:  She gives them endless material; in return, they give her endless coverage and the occasional benefit of the doubt.

Then there’s the money, which is arguably the most essential component to Hillary’s candidacy and career.  At this moment, if there is anything that could feasibly lose her the nomination to Bernie Sanders, it’s her unnervingly close relationship to Wall Street and other financial giants in a year that most Democratic voters are prepared to burn the leaders of those institutions in effigy.  Clinton herself assures us that she is equally concerned about the outsize power of Big Money in American life and will make every effort to rectify this imbalance once in office.

The problem—as everyone now knows—is that Clinton has collected nearly $2 million in contributions from various big banks over the last several years.  Officially, these were mere “speaking fees.”  In the minds of millions of Democratic primary voters, they were a down payment.

Here is where the business culture of New York comes into play.  If you are the sort of well-connected, highly-respected insider that both Clintons have become since moving to the Empire State, you would regard giving prime time speeches to major companies as an obvious and uncontroversial part of your job (not to mention an easy and painless way to make a buck).

However, for someone outside of that uber-capitalist milieu, it looks awfully shady for a supposed big bank antagonist to accept millions of dollars from big banks and then claim that the money will have no effect on how she treats those corporations as commander-in-chief.

I am reminded—unavoidably—of the moment in 2013 when John Oliver, pinch-hitting for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, confronted Senator Kirsten Gillibrand about her own six-figure income from companies like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase.  “What I deeply want to know,” said Oliver, “is what do you have to do for that?  What is required of you for that money?”  That Gillibrand didn’t even attempt to answer Oliver’s query is, in a way, more damning than any explanation she might have given.

Need I mention which state Senator Gillibrand represents?

That Hillary Clinton apparently doesn’t understand how anyone could find fault with her particular financial arrangement is, itself, her biggest problem of all.  She has become so insulated in the universe of pay-for-play that she either a) doesn’t recognize open bribery when she sees it, or b) doesn’t think the voters are clever enough to recognize it themselves.  They say no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people; I guess soon enough we’ll find out for sure.

In any case, this year it looks like it’s really gonna happen:  New York vs. New York, and the rest of the country will just have to deal with it.  No doubt those who share Ted Cruz’s worldview will find this situation intolerable.  As someone who lived in the New York metro area for 10 years and still visits from time to time, I consider this geographic quirk among the saving graces of this ridiculous campaign.

Donald Trump, if nominated, would be far and away the most inappropriate presidential candidate in my lifetime, for reasons I have outlined over and over again.  If elected, the damage he would inflict upon the United States is almost too horrific to contemplate.  However, taking all of that as a given and knowing that I would never abandon my country for such paltry reasons as those, I’d much prefer a pigheaded Republican president from New York to, say, someone like Ted Cruz.

There’s that old adage, “He’s an idiot, but he’s our idiot,” and that is my feeling about Trump.  If the GOP insists upon nominating a maniac for the highest office in the land, at least the maniac in question will have spent virtually his whole life marinating in one of the most vital, cosmopolitan, enlightened cities on planet Earth—and is damned proud of having done so.  I don’t see eye to eye with Trump about much, but the conviction that New York is the true capital of the United States—the city that most fully captures America in all of its glory, beauty and absurdity—well, that’s one value about which we are in total agreement, and that is slightly better than nothing.

The Gospel of Jon

Probably the biggest misconception about The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is that it’s a satire of the daily news.

It’s not.  It’s a satire of news outlets and the comically inept ways in which they operate.

This has always and forever been the case with Stewart’s program, as it was for his predecessor, Craig Kilborn.  From the first, the whole idea of The Daily Show was to lampoon and exaggerate how America’s supposedly legitimate news sources—be they newspapers, TV networks or Internet sites—tend to neglect or abuse their most basic and sacred obligation of keeping American citizens informed about what’s going on in the world, all the while distinguishing what’s important from what’s not.

As for the news itself—local, national or global—well, that’s but a secondary concern in this scheme.  It’s the grist in Comedy Central’s mill of silliness.  While it has certainly helped that current events have managed to be so utterly ridiculous over the past 16 years, keeping our leaders honest is not The Daily Show’s core competence.  As Stewart himself has said, that particular responsibility lies solely with the American media that presumes to take this stuff seriously.  Stewart’s job is merely to illustrate how depressingly often they fail.

Of course, as everyone knows, this arrangement is all strictly theoretical.  From the moment in 2004 when Stewart turned up on CNN’s Crossfire and called its hosts “partisan hacks” who are “hurting America,”  The Daily Show has increasingly—if unintentionally—assumed the status of a news program in its own right.  Poll after poll has shown that, as a TV personality, Stewart is as trusted as the likes of Tom Brokaw, Anderson Cooper and every other talking head who fancies himself a newsman.  Sometimes he even tops the list.

What is more, Stewart’s would-be counterparts have long bought in to this topsy-turvy reality, treating him as their moral equal or, in the case of Fox News, attacking him as if he were any other member of their small-screen political scrum.

It’s a shame, in a way, that Stewart’s program has amassed such a wealth of respectability among its viewers—particularly those within the journalism profession—since it more-or-less proves that Stewart has been right all along about our national news-reporting apparatus being a giant blithering travesty.

Indeed, even apart from the implications about American journalism, it’s always dangerous for a decidedly countercultural figure to become mainstream.  If the whole premise of being a vulgar, tomato-throwing court jester is that you are a shunned, powerless outsider, how do you retain your identity and street cred once you get accepted into polite society?  How do you avoid selling out or becoming neutered?

In fact, Jon Stewart has avoided this horrid fate, and I would attribute it to two critical factors.  First, as a writer and producer, he understands the mind of his audience enough to know when his shtick is no longer working and has the wherewithal to self-correct, if necessary.

Second, and most importantly:  He was never that edgy in the first place.

We may have this vision of Stewart as some kind of subversive, Earth-scorching renegade.  In fact, he is exactly what he’s always been:  an old-fashioned Jewish vaudevillian with a rubber face and a bottomless supply of 1980s pop culture references.  A sharp, amiable failed movie actor who happens to possess a supersized interest in current affairs and a ferocious desire for social justice.

As a comedian, he does not have the raw, angry bite of Lewis Black.  He isn’t a natural improv like Stephen Colbert.  He doesn’t express his views as bluntly as Larry Wilmore.  His nebbish sense of cultural inferiority is not as pronounced as John Oliver’s.  (OK, that last one is a close call.)

Nor, for that matter, are his political and cultural observations as pointed as those of his successor, Trevor Noah—the 31-year-old South African who nearly got burned alive on Twitter after daring to say a negative word about Israel (among other things).

I’ve seen Stewart perform stand-up twice.  On the stage, he is pretty much the same quirky, endearing fellow he is at his anchor desk—indeed, a good chunk of his material was lifted from old Daily Show scripts—but there is precious little in his act that rises to the level of brilliance.  He might be among the most purely enjoyable comics working today, but he is hardly an innovator in the field.

So why, then—if all this is true—does he depart his post this Thursday as one of the most beloved and indispensable hosts in the history of American television?

There have been many theories these last many weeks—ruminations about how Stewart’s honesty and moral indignation reflect those of millions of others all across the world—but I think his X factor can be traced to a single word:  Gratitude.

Having tried his hand at all sorts of random, dead-end jobs after college, then finally diving into the New York stand-up circuit—an environment where success is inevitably preceded by many years of failure—Stewart understands how lucky he is to have had a long, steady job doing what he loves.  That he has surpassed all conceivable expectations makes his gig all the sweeter, but it has seemingly never given way to laziness or arrogance.  Notwithstanding how exhausting 16 years of hosting would be for anyone, Stewart still approaches every show with a glint in his eye that says, “I can’t believe they pay me for this.”

The Daily Show is an old-fashioned labor of love between Stewart and his team of writers and correspondents, many of whom have been around nearly as long as he has.  Once Stewart leaves, it’s not that the program “won’t be the same.”  It won’t exist at all, no matter what it says on the awning outside 733 11th Avenue in New York.  Jon hosted the show and, at this point, we can rightly say that Jon is the show.

Not that we have much cause to mope about this latest end-of-a-television-era.  Since January, Larry Wilmore has done terrific work with The Nightly Show, Stewart’s chaser on the same network.  John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight has swiftly become appointment television over on HBO, where Oliver is able to deep-dive into obscure but critical news topics in a way that Stewart, on basic cable, never could.  On September 8, Stephen Colbert begins his tenure at The Late Show on CBS, which may well become more iconic and entertaining than any of us could possibly imagine.

And wouldn’t you know it:  Every one of those guys (and plenty more) got his big break on The Daily Show, where Stewart, channeling his inner Lorne Michaels, was able to spot nascent comedic talent and allow it to bloom.

In that way, Thursday’s finale won’t be a farewell to Jon Stewart on the airwaves, for his work is everywhere—namely, in the success of all his former underlings who will now carry on the legacy he created.  An entire generation of comics with a single common ancestor.

Not bad for a short, neurotic Jewish kid from New Jersey.

Oliver!

The coolest kid in the room is the one who makes absolutely no effort to be cool.

This is a fact we all learn sooner or later, although it always seems to be long after we’ve graduated high school—the period of adolescence when it would do the most good.

But no matter.  Better to know a crucial fact of life late than never.  And make no mistake:  Grade school is not the only place in which coolness—and perceived coolness—plays a major role in shaping the American culture.  For better or worse, it’s a factor that stays with us until the bitter end.

But that is what makes my opening observation such good news.  It’s a shame we’ve gone to such lengths to keep it a secret.

When you’re young, you want nothing more than to blend in with the crowd.  In practice, this often means suppressing or altering your personality—and with it, your true thoughts and feelings about how you see the world—lest everyone else think you’re a weirdo.

Sociologically-speaking, this is perfectly rational behavior, especially if being different means getting stuffed into a locker, or worse.

However, once you escape from that 12-year prison sentence and spend a bit of time in The Real World, you realize the people you truly admire are those who refuse to fit in:  The folks who think differently and do not worry about how it might affect their social standing—either because they don’t care about their social standing, or simply because it never occurred to them to be anything other than their true selves.

In a land of self-consciousness and insecurity, the confident man is king.

All of which is prelude to a simple but important fact:  Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is the coolest show on TV.

John Oliver, of course, first became known to America as a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, itself regarded as perhaps the hippest half-hour in all of basic cable, owing to its penchant for exposing hypocrisy in politics and the media and—it must be said—for towing a reliably liberal, millennial-friendly line on most issues.

Then in the summer of 2013, Stewart took a three-month sabbatical to direct Rosewater, during which time Oliver assumed the anchor chair and proved he was talk show host material.

Last Week Tonight premiered on HBO on April 27, 2014.  Broadcast for a half-hour every Sunday night, it proved an immediate creative success.  After nearly a year on the air, it has become indispensible—for reasons both obvious and unexpected.

To be sure, Last Week Tonight is appealing for many of the reasons The Daily Show is appealing.  They both skewer political disingenuousness and stupidity wherever they occur.  They both traffic in cheap puns and ironic cultural references.  And they’re both fundamentally more honest and trustworthy than most actual TV news programs.

But Oliver’s shtick is no carbon copy of Stewart’s.  Broadcast on HBO, it is not burdened by strict time limits, commercial interruptions or—crucially—censorship.

Also—and perhaps paradoxically—because Last Week Tonight airs only once a week, Oliver is able to go much further into depth than a show that runs every night.

Indeed, a typical episode of Last Week Tonight contains only a cursory recap of the past week’s news.  Oliver will briskly tick off the highlights—joking all the way, of course—before proceeding to the main event:  A lengthy, deeply-researched, fully fleshed-out monologue about a topic of his choosing.

There are no parameters for what the issue can be, and they have varied wildly from week to week.  Some are of clear relevance to recent events (e.g. government surveillance, drone warfare and income inequality), while others seem to fall randomly out of the clear blue sky (e.g. exposés of nutritional supplements, FIFA and the Miss America Pageant).

The show’s genius—the quality, above all, that makes it essential viewing—is to introduce subjects that are either boring, complicated or obscure and force us to care about them—first by making them comprehensible, and then by making them funny.

To achieve this week in and week out is not difficult.  It’s impossible.

But Oliver does it, and the service he renders is nothing short of heroic.

His premise—unspoken but unmistakable—is that most Americans’ priorities are completely out of whack, and that the issues we should care most about are the ones we most ardently ignore—often quite willfully, indeed.

In broaching matters that most of us would rather not broach, Oliver’s greatest weapon is empathy.  He will often begin a segment with an apology, acknowledging up front that, deep down, none of us really wants to deal with, say, the minutiae of civil forfeiture laws or the compromised relationship between doctors and pharmaceutical companies.  Why would we?  The very sound of those words causes our eyes to roll up into the back of our heads.

Oliver’s response, in effect, is to say, “Bear with me.”  Sometimes he will reel in his audience with a promise of a reward at the end of the segment (for instance, a YouTube video of a hamster eating a tiny burrito).  Other times, he will plow right ahead, trusting us to follow along in the understanding that whatever’s coming is important and worthy of our attention.  After all, why would a budding TV star risk his career on something that isn’t guaranteed to spark viewers’ interest?

In point of fact, that’s exactly what Oliver does.  As for why, perhaps it’s that raising awareness of heretofore overlooked concerns is more important to him than his standing in the Nielsen ratings.  Maybe he’s more interested in telling us what we should know rather than what we want to know.

And that is why Last Week Tonight is the coolest show on television.

For a textbook example, look no further than last Sunday’s episode, during which Oliver marked Tax Day with a defense of the IRS.

Yup:  In the very week that hatred of the Internal Revenue Service by every man, woman and child in America reached critical mass, Oliver went out of his way to put in a good word for the government agency whose sole purpose is to get between you and your money.

After acknowledging—in typically thorough fashion—that the IRS has often proved itself horrendously inefficient at providing basic customer service and at correcting its own mistakes, Oliver proceeded to illustrate that to direct all of your contempt about taxes toward the IRS is to fundamentally misunderstand how our government works.

“Blaming the IRS because you hate paying your taxes is a bit like slapping your checkout clerk because the price of eggs has gone up,” Oliver explained.  “It’s not her fault. She’s just trying to help you get out of the store.”

He’s right.  To the extent that the U.S. tax code is confusing, unfair and ridiculous, it is entirely the responsibility of Congress, whose esteemed members wrote the damn thing in the first place.

The Internal Revenue Service has absolutely no say in how America’s tax structure works.  All it does—all that it’s meant to do—is enforce the policies that Congress lays out, and to do so in the fairest possible way.

And yet—as Oliver went on to show—IRS offices are regularly targeted by the very taxpayers they mean to assist—often in the form of questionable substances affixed to senders’ returns.  In a clip from a 2007 documentary, we see the director of an IRS processing center explain, with almost comical detachment, how employees will simply wipe the offending substance from the check and send it on its merry way.

In portraying America’s annual Tax Day mania from the IRS’s point of view, Oliver’s implicit message becomes clear:  By making IRS workers the bad guys, we taxpayers are behaving like a bunch of whiny, self-righteous idiots.

The truth is that an IRS employee is like any other low-level office drone:  He spends eight hours a day moving paper around before returning home, emptying a pint of Jameson and passing out on the couch.  Projecting all of your frustration at him accomplishes nothing except proving that you are a colossal, inconsiderate jerk.

This was a point that absolutely needed to be made, yet one that hardly anyone wanted to hear.  For as long as paying taxes has been everyone’s least favorite springtime activity, the Internal Revenue Service has been the perfect villain:  An entity that we can all get together to detest.

Why ruin our fun with reality?

It’s a thankless job, indeed, to confront people with facts that make them feel guilty or foolish.  Perhaps not as thankless as performing an audit on someone who wants to squish you like a bug, but close enough.

The person who does it will never be popular, because why would he be?  They say a true friend is someone who will always tell you the truth, but when was the last time the truth made you feel better?

Truth-tellers are essential to a society that so stubbornly insists upon living in a fantasy world.  However, because the very concept of unattractive facts is anathema to the American way of thinking, the bearers of bad news will only ever be those with enough nerve to resist the peer pressure of groupthink and the idea that distinguishing yourself from the crowd has no social benefits.

No surprise, then, that the coolest man on American television is an Englishman.