He’s Not Going Anywhere

If Donald Trump dropped dead tomorrow, his presidency would go down as a bizarre, disgraceful failure—albeit a unique, memorable and morbidly entertaining one.  Eight weeks in, the Trump administration has earned every ounce of skepticism that a majority of the public has nursed since Day 1, swerving wildly between quasi-authoritarian histrionics and clueless, bumbling ineptitude—“malevolence tempered by incompetence,” as one journalist put it.

In fact, Trump will not be checking out anytime soon, as doing so would violate Lewis Black’s first general rule of health:  “The good die young, but pricks live forever.”

Sorry, folks:  Not only is this roller coaster of shame real, but it has barely left the goddamned gate.  To ask—as one does—whether this president’s noxious mixture of cruelty, duplicity and cynicism can be sustained at its current velocity for another four years is to miss the main point.  Of course this horror show will continue exactly as it has begun:  Trump has neither the inclination nor the ability to behave as anything other than what he is.  His appeal, his “brand”—his very identity—hinges on his being a vindictive, ignorant jerk 24 hours a day, and he is not about to elevate the interests of the republic above his crippling need for unending praise and attention.

I bear this bad news having just re-watched Oliver Stone’s 1995 biopic Nixon—a film that, at this moment, I would recommend to every man, woman and child in America—or at least to anyone who requires some historical perspective on the seemingly unprecedented political quagmire we find ourselves in today.  As past presidents go, Richard Nixon is and will forever be the Rosetta Stone for understanding the machinations of Donald Trump, and Stone’s exuberant dramatization of Nixon’s life is an invaluable visual document of modern American history at its worst.

The first thing to recall about Nixon, our 37th president, is that he was an unconscionable scumbag.  A vile, ugly, selfish, paranoid, shameless, cynical, racist crook.  An opportunist and a con man.  A liar and a cheat.  A hollow shell of a human being who exerted bottomless energy toward political score-settling and practically none at all toward making America a better place to live.

The second thing to recall about Tricky Dick—and boy did that nickname say it all—is that, in his five-and-a-half years in office, he got a hell of a lot of things done, many of which unambiguously pushed our country forward in lasting, meaningful ways.  Apart from opening China to the West and fostering friendlier relations with the Soviet Union, Nixon became a partner in the environmental protection movement—signing the Clean Air Act and establishing the EPA—and was the first president to propose a universal government healthcare system that, nearly four decades later, would provide the basic framework for the Affordable Care Act—the 2010 bill that, as the aforementioned Lewis Black quipped, could’ve easily been called “Nixonicare.”

Nixon accomplished all of those commendable things and more, and we can’t pretend that he didn’t.  He was a ruthless, cold-hearted bastard, but by God, did he deliver.

The strategy of Oliver Stone’s movie—as embodied by its titanic lead performance by Anthony Hopkins—is to portray Nixon’s presidency as a grand Shakespearean tragedy, with its title character as a man who had the potential for everlasting greatness but was ultimately felled by his own flaws—in particular, his pathological habit of getting in his own way through bouts of self-pity and self-righteousness—weaknesses present in all national leaders, but rarely in such outrageously lethal doses.

Watching Nixon today, it becomes glaringly evident—if it weren’t already—how profoundly the worst instincts of Nixon mirror the worst instincts of Trump—not least the two men’s shared contempt for “elites” and any notion of a free press—with the latter president possessing even less self-control and self-awareness than the former, not to mention less intelligence and less expertise in anything even remotely to do with government.

If Nixon had a secret sauce—an X factor that enabled him to ascend great heights despite his deadly failings—it was the amoral political instincts that allowed him to personally profit from—and often stoke—divisions among different groups of people.  Domestically, this included the late-1960s racial tensions that helped him scare white people into voting for him in the first place.  Globally, this same habit was manifested in the rivalry between China and Russia, which Nixon was able to parlay into a set of mutually beneficial deals that America still enjoys to this day.

In other words, even Nixon’s finest moments were borne of his basest impulses.  The Machiavellian tactics that proved so effective in Beijing and Moscow originated from the same dark corner of the president’s brain that led him to brazenly interfere with the Watergate investigation and to use government money to cover it all up.  He was a crafty dealmaker and a common criminal, and you couldn’t have one without the other.

Which brings us to the most important—and most dangerous—lesson from the Nixon era:  Americans do not care if their president is corrupt, so long as his corruption redounds to the benefit of the public at large.  As a rule, if the economy is humming along and civil unrest is kept to a minimum, few citizens will bother to look very closely at any shenanigans that might be occurring in the executive branch.  As any pyramid scheme victim will tell you, why ask questions when everything is going so well?

Indeed, given the facts of history, it’s worth arguing that Nixon’s eventual (and richly deserved) downfall was as much a product of a depressed economy as of a sudden interest in rule of law by American voters.  While correlation does not necessarily prove causation, one can’t help but notice that, from early 1973 onward, Nixon’s free-falling approval rating tracked almost perfectly with the Dow Jones Industrial Average, suggesting that had the Watergate scandal not coincided with a general economic downturn—and, with it, a growing public disgust with Washington, D.C.—Nixon may well have rode out whatever allegations Congress and The Washington Post hurled at him throughout 1973 and 1974.  After all, he did win 49 states in the election of 1972.

Does this mean Donald Trump could commit a slew of impeachable offenses, yet remain in office for his entire term, provided the stock market doesn’t crash and the country doesn’t devolve into complete anarchy?

Yes, dear reader.  That’s exactly what it means.

If Nixon teaches us anything, it’s that the American presidency is just about the most secure job on planet Earth.  Despite all the malfeasance that has been committed over the last 228 years by most of the 44 men in that office, Nixon is still the only one to have departed prematurely without dying—and bear in mind that the “smoking gun” in Watergate only came to light as the result of an audio recording that Nixon himself made.  If those famous White House tapes didn’t exist—or were never publicly released—Nixon may well have stuck around until January 20, 1977, leading us to wonder if there’s anything the president of the United States cannot get away with, if he gives it the old college try.

With Donald Trump, that’s what we will continuously be finding out for the next 46 months, if not longer.  Having demonstrated, ad nauseam, that he cares about nothing but himself and is prepared to violate every political norm in the book in order to get what he wants, Trump is practically daring us to use the Constitution to yank him offstage, and if it turns out the American public doesn’t have the fortitude to pressure Congress into doing so, it is Trump who will have the last laugh, and we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.

Crawl Space

In the event that Donald Trump is elected president on Tuesday, I will probably be too busy digging a hole to the center of the Earth to comment on the results in a timely fashion—and most of you will be too busy helping me dig to read it—so instead I will get ahead of the game and offer my reaction to a Trump victory now.

Well, we did it, America.  Presented with the opportunity to elect our first female commander-in-chief—something Iceland did 36 years ago and Ireland has done twice—we opted, instead, for a man who judges all women on a scale of 1 to 10 and has sexually assaulted at least 12 of them to date (allegedly).

Faced with a candidate who graced the White House and the Senate for eight years apiece and helmed the State Department for four, we selected for our president a callous, selfish, avaricious businessman whose entire public life has been a massive pyramid scheme for the benefit of exactly one person:  himself.

Offered the chance to anoint to America’s highest office a legendary policy wonk who understands legislative nuance the way Bill Belichick understands defensive strategy, we decided the best choice for Leader of the Free World is a guy who once held three different positions on abortion in a single afternoon and, from various public statements, is apparently unaware of at least three-fifths of the First Amendment.

I could go on—oh, how I could go on—but after spending a solid year and a half explaining how the very existence of Donald Trump stands as a permanent blot on the character of the United States—how he personifies literally every negative stereotype the world has ever dreamed up about the Greatest Country on Earth—I think we all feel a bit like Walter White lying in his basement crawl space, overwhelmed by an avalanche of failure and madness, finding there’s really nothing left to do except maniacally laugh ourselves into a state of blissful oblivion.

Through eight years of George W. Bush, our generation discovered there are consequences to making an incompetent dolt the most powerful person in America, and now—after an eight-year reprieve headlined by a brilliant, thoughtful, compassionate hipster—we are about to learn that lesson all over again.  Rock bottom, here we come.

However, rather than merely despair over what is unquestionably the most disgraceful and dangerous election result in the United States since at least 1972, I propose rounding up a search party for a set of silver linings—a collective glimmer of hope to get us through the darkness of the days and months ahead.

As we think more deeply about what good might come from the worst presidential candidate—and, in all likelihood, the worst president—of any of our lifetimes, here are a few shallow thoughts to tide us over between now and January 20.

  1. Trump could drop dead on a moment’s notice.

Notwithstanding Lewis Black’s axiom, “The good die young, but pricks live forever,” America’s president-elect is, after all, an overweight 70-year-old man who apparently eats nothing but fast food and considers public speaking his primary form of exercise.  Actuarially-speaking, the fact that Trump has lived this long is a goddamned miracle.  For him to somehow survive another four years would be the most persuasive evidence to date that God exists and has a rather twisted sense of humor.

Should Trump succumb to the massive heart attack that we all know is coming, the nation would then, of course, fall into the hands of Mike Pence—an ultra-conservative, scientifically illiterate homophobe who nonetheless possesses the ability to speak in complete sentences, understands the rudiments of legislative give-and-take and, most encouragingly of all, does not especially relish having to defend the rougher edges (i.e., the entirety) of Trump’s personality, meaning that once Trump is gone, President Pence would feel no particular responsibility to mold himself in Trump’s image for the sake of continuity.  As president, he would serve as a comparatively ordinary, across-the-board Republican who, for all his horrifying faults, would not pose an existential threat to global stability and constitutional law.

  1. In the election of 2020, the Democratic Party will boast its deepest and most youthful bench since, well, possibly ever.

Earlier this year, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni—as if to raise his own spirits—ran a story highlighting 14 up-and-coming Democratic elected officials under the age of 45—a concept totally alien to this year’s primary fight between a 68-year-old elder stateswoman and a cranky, 74-year-old socialist.  Bruni’s list is commendable, above all, for its sheer variety, boasting representatives of different races, ethnicities, sexualities and geographic origins—a clear and obvious contrast to the GOP’s stubbornly white, male complexion.

Needless to say, this group includes its fair share of women—as does the party as a whole.  (Among all the women in Congress, nearly three-quarters are Democrats.)  Indeed, to take even a casual look at the field of potential future presidents on the Democratic side is to realize how very silly it was to declare Hillary Clinton the one and only chance to have a female president in our lifetimes.  Surely by now we know better than to pin all of humanity’s hopes on a single human being.

Then again, perhaps not.

  1. The next four years will be a veritable golden age of piercing political satire.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that what is bad for America is great for the nation’s professional funny people, and the inherent comedic potential of a President Trump is as rich as it is bottomless.  As a man both obscenely powerful and profoundly clownish—and totally incapable of recognizing the latter—Trump will never cease being a walking, talking punch line for as long as America retains the right to free expression as a founding principle of our society—something that even Trump can’t completely stamp out.

What’s more, the very fact that Trump manifestly cannot take a joke at his own expense—let alone a string of vicious insults that he is all-too-willing to unleash upon others—means that every new public mockery of this eminently mockable creature will carry an added layer of danger and subversion—a sense that America’s court jesters are just one gag away from being rounded up in the middle of the night and shipped off to Guantanamo Bay.  The Daily Show ran an entire episode to that effect on Halloween night and—speaking of which—if the continued presence of Trump means the reemergence of Jon Stewart—in whatever guise he chooses—then the whole thing will have just about been worth it.

But that’s easy enough to say for an educated, non-Muslim white man who can pass for straight and lives in a magical place (Massachusetts) that guarantees health insurance regardless of whether Obamacare survives to fight another day.

For everyone else—women, religious and ethnic minorities, the poor, the uneducated, the unemployed and the uninsured—this is not a great day for America, and it will get a lot worse before it ever gets better.

But at least democracy itself prevailed.  The election was not rigged and there will be neither a month-long recount nor a coup d’état in its wake.  Trump won, America lost, but civilized society endures.  For now.

Ode to a Lost Boy

As of today, Robin Williams has allegedly been dead for exactly two years.

I say “allegedly” because, in a sense, I’m still in denial about the whole thing.  Robin Williams can’t be dead, because how could life go on without him?

It actually can’t.  He was one genie we couldn’t just put back into the bottle, and anyway, why would we want to?  As a comedian and movie star, he enriched our lives in a manner that couldn’t be replicated by anyone else, and his abrupt departure from Earth in the summer of 2014 created a void too upsetting to confront head-on.

Of course, we’ve never actually needed to confront it as we would the death of a close friend, since Williams’ presence in our lives existed entirely on a screen.  We’ll never see him again in the flesh, but then most of us never saw him in the flesh while he was alive.

Except that’s a rational way to approach the loss of Robin Williams when, in fact, his connection with us was entirely emotional.  That he died on purpose, by his own hand, somehow made the blow even more personal.  It felt almost like a betrayal—an acknowledgment that his duty to us, his adoring public, had been subsumed by a private agony that he couldn’t bring himself to share with us.

As it turns out, we didn’t know him quite as well as we thought.

Looking over his credits recently, I was a bit surprised how few of his movies I’ve actually seen.  That is, until I realized how few of his movies are worth seeing at all.  As a rule, I follow the advice of my favorite critics unless I have an extremely compelling reason not to, and the unfortunate fact is that only a fraction of the projects Williams attached himself to were worthy of his enormous talents.  I don’t know about you, but I find it rather depressing to subject myself to mediocre work by otherwise great artists.

So I’ve never bothered with Death to Smoochy—the 2002 comedy about which Roger Ebert wrote, “In all the annals of the movies, few films have been this odd, inexplicable and unpleasant”—nor have I followed up on his Teddy Roosevelt impression in all the Night at the Museum sequels.  Life is short, and I’d hate my mental image of Williams as Armand Goldman or Mrs. Doubtfire to be polluted in any way.

On the other hand, I did catch 2006’s Man of the Year on cable in recent months, and was intrigued by how it both confirmed and defied this theory.

As you may or may not know, Man of the Year is a political farce, directed by Barry Levinson, with Williams as a comedian who is elected president of the United States on the strength of his straight talk and, presumably, his wit.  If the conceit is a bit of a stretch, the character is not:  Here, Williams is basically playing a more civically-engaged version of himself, saturating his few serious thoughts with a bottomless supply of jokes, impressions and idle observations about the absurdity of the world around him—and of course everyone in the room eats it up.

It should work, yet it doesn’t.  For all the promise of its constituent parts—the cast also includes Laura Linney, Christopher Walken and my other favorite comic, Lewis Black—Man of the Year is not great cinema.  It’s lame, uninspired, unfocused and, well, just not terribly clever.  Like those lesser Marx Brothers movies that spent far too much time with inane romantic subplots and far too little time allowing Groucho and company to let loose and turn the joint upside down, Man of the Year plays like a stand-up special with all the interesting bits left out and replaced with a whole lot of fluff.  It’s the sort of production that fails the old Gene Siskel test, “Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?”

And yet I can’t hate it—and I’ll put it on for a few minutes in between changing channels—because, dammit, it’s still Robin Williams.  The fact that everything around him is junk doesn’t negate the joy of his very presence on the screen.

Indeed, Williams was among a small, elite group of performers whose humanity enabled him to transcend lousy material.  For all the misfires in his career—most of which were patently obvious at the time, perhaps even to him—he never really left our good graces, since it was plain to all—through his words and his actions—that beneath the vulgar, often drug-induced zaniness, he was a decent, generous, big-hearted person who wanted nothing but to be loved.  And boy, did we love him.

Could Be Worse

Is this the worst presidential election in history?  Only if you know nothing about history.

Would Donald Trump be the worst president of all time?  Maybe, but I certainly wouldn’t bet the house on it.

Over the last month or so—as the precise character of the 2016 election has taken form—there has been an endless parade of rhetoric in favor of one or both of the aforementioned claims.  An assumed general election match-up between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, we have been told, represents the most wretched choice the American public has faced in many moons—if not ever—and should the presumptive Republican nominee emerge victorious on November 8, it would likely portend the fall of Western civilization as we know it.

The latter, of course, is a matter of pure speculation until the unspeakable actually occurs.  As for the former:  Don’t be ridiculous.  The championship match of the 2016 campaign—uninspiring as it might be—hardly represents a nadir in the history of U.S. presidential elections.  That we have convinced ourselves otherwise is less a product of our increasingly lackluster candidates than of our unjustifiably heightened expectations thereof.

As with so much else, we in the present like to think we live in exceptional times when it comes to presidential politics—in this case, exceptionally bad—and that our generation of voters deserves a heap of pity that all previous generations managed to avoid.

What ignorant hogwash this is.

All the way back in 1905, in writing about politics in the 1870s, historian Henry Adams dryly observed, “The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.”  Ninety-nine years later, surveying the 2004 contest between George W. Bush and John Kerry, comedian Lewis Black similarly quipped, “If this is evolution in terms of leadership, I think in 12 years we’re gonna be voting for plants.”

Whether or not Black’s assessment has proved correct (those dozen years are now officially up), it is clear enough that the perception of having a lackluster roster of potential presidents is the oldest, stalest gripe in the book.  Contrary to popular belief, Americans have always been disappointed by the people who’ve run to lead them, viewing every election as a search for—well, if not the lesser evil, then at least the person with a fighting chance of not making life any more miserable than it already is.

We elect a commander-in-chief for all sorts of reasons and under many different circumstances, but it’s always with the subtext—spoken or unspoken—that the available options are hardly the best specimens America has to offer.

We often compare our present-day leaders (unfavorably) to those of the founding generation, viewing the latter as the high water mark for intellectual and political brilliance in the history of this or any country.  Indeed, that’s exactly what they were, and the sad truth is that the Founding Fathers were simply the exception to the rule:  George Washington, for his part, didn’t even want to be president except to avert a possible civil war, while his next five successors got the job on the strength of having directly contributed to the American Revolution—a prerequisite that, by definition, could not be reproduced in any other era.

Following the populist upheaval fostered by one Andrew Jackson—a man of extraordinary physical courage who, if he ran today, would be roundly dismissed as a raging psychopath—Americans elected a series of chief executives of such immense mediocrity—often against equally humdrum opponents—that few citizens today could even recite their names.  Much the same was the case in between the end of the Civil War and the rise of Teddy Roosevelt in 1901.  Indeed, one could argue that, except for Abraham Lincoln, the final two-thirds of the 19th century were one giant muddle of executive leadership to which no one would want to return.

And yet return we have, over and over again.  For all our insistence that only the best and the brightest seek and execute the most powerful post on planet Earth, we have spent most of American history dealing with the uncomfortable truth that, on the whole—and especially now—the most brilliant people in the country are not interested in running for elected office:  They’re busy curing diseases, inventing self-driving cars, building skyscrapers and writing Broadway musicals.

Even before presidential campaigns became the insane carnival acts they are today, the incentive for dedicating one’s talents to the public good has been in decline since practically the dawn of the republic, which means that the slack will inevitably be picked up by aspirants who are intellectually and morally inferior.

To be sure, this doesn’t mean that the occasional prodigy hasn’t occasionally slipped through.  We have, after all, just enjoyed two terms with a president who—imperfections notwithstanding—is an exceptionally deep thinker, capable of speaking and writing elegantly, clearly and at length, and (to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald) adept at holding opposing ideas in his head without losing the ability to function.

If today’s voters—particularly those under 30—feel short-changed by this year’s options, it’s largely a consequence of having been spoiled by arguably the hippest man who has ever held this job.  Indeed, for every voting American born after 1986, this will be the first presidential election in which Barack Obama’s name will not be on the ballot.  (Were it not for the 22nd Amendment, one suspects 2016 would’ve gone very differently, indeed.)

And yet, for those very voters, it would be difficult—on paper, at least—to craft a more agreeable and logical successor than someone who spent eight years in the White House, eight years in the Senate and four years in the State Department and who, by the way, is openly campaigning for Obama’s third term and possesses a mastery of policy nuance light years ahead of Obama’s at this point in his 2008 campaign.

This is not to say that Hillary Clinton is perfect or that someone who is qualified on paper is also qualified in real life.  Having been a nationally-known figure for nearly a quarter-century, Clinton carries clear shortcomings and asterisks, and her ascendancy would be a calculated risk on all of our parts.

In other words, Hillary is flawed.  But you know which other presidential candidates have been flawed?  All of them.

In truth, every person who has ever sought the Oval Office has been ill-qualified to one degree or another.  That’s the nature of the gig.  The fantastical notion of an Ideal Candidate—someone with the right skills at the right time—has rarely been borne out by history, and we have little reason to expect such a thing in the near future.

Contra Trump, Clinton is as solid a candidate as you would expect our system to produce:  Wily, intelligent, hardworking, compassionate, compromising, gritty and ruthless.  If you expect more than that in a modern-day commander-in-chief, you just may expect too much.

The Entertainer

Quick question:  Is there is any meaningful difference between Sarah Palin and Donald Trump?

There are probably a few distinctions worth mentioning.  Several billion dollars in net worth, for one.  Palin is (or was) a career politician, while Trump has never been elected to anything.  Palin has held unyieldingly conservative views her entire adult life, while Trump has oscillated back and forth as it has suited him.  Palin stars in reality TV shows, while Trump only hosts them.

On the whole, however, I am increasingly finding the two Republican stars interchangeable.  The longer our present Trump hysteria persists, the more it conjures déjà vu for that period in 2008 when, thanks to John McCain, America was presented with a singular political phenomenon it could not ignore, however hard it tried.

Specifically, I have decided to approach the Trump question as comedian Lewis Black approached Palin.  Asked in 2010 about his estimation of the one-time Alaska governor, Black quipped, “What I believe is she’s actually not real.  That’s the only way my mind can deal with it, that she’s a fiction character come to life.”

Sounds about right to me.

Donald Trump may technically be a living, breathing human being—in possession of some semblance of a heart and brain—but to the tens of millions of us observing the presidential race from our respective couches, he is, for all intents and purposes, a cartoon character.  A TV-based caricature whose presence has no relationship to reality and who will never, ever, ever be elected president.

This has been true from the moment in 2011 when Trump, disposing of whatever dignity he had left, publicly converted to Birtherism by expressing doubt as to whether President Obama was born in the United States.  Then, none of us actually took his rantings seriously, but we happily imbibed them nonetheless, because, hey, we all need to indulge our guilty pleasures now and then.

Now, of course, the circumstances are slightly different, insomuch as Trump is running for president and is currently the highest-polling candidate in the Republican primary field.

But here’s the weird thing:  We still don’t take him seriously.

If I may be allowed a prediction:  Should he win the nomination, we won’t take him seriously then, either.

And if he is elected president?  To quote Basil Fawlty:  “We’ll worry about that when we come to it, shall we?”

Of course he won’t win the nomination, let alone the keys to Air Force One.  Up to now, his candidacy has been built on a foundation of sheer chutzpah, blissfully bereft of anything in the way of policy prescriptions, intellectual maturity or basic ideological coherence.  While plenty of candidates have succeeded with one or other of those characteristics, Trump would be the first to pull off the hat trick.

But he won’t, because sooner or later, the utter ridiculousness of his existence will cease being a mixture of hilarious and appalling and be merely appalling, and his whole act will just plain get old.  Sure, in the future he may experiment with actual legislative proposals—launching a drone war against China, perhaps?—but there is little evidence that this would have much effect on his core fans, who seem perfectly content with the substance-free specimen they have now.

A word about those supporters.

In most recent opinion polls, Trump is gobbling up endorsements from 20-25 percent of registered Republican voters—more than any of his competitors by far.

But let us realize how insignificant this data point actually is.  According to Gallop, 23 percent of Americans today identify as Republicans.  (Democrats are 28 percent and independents are 46 percent.)  While it is certainly impressive for anyone to carry 25 percent support in a 17-person field, when we talk about one-fourth of GOP voters, we are only talking about one-fourth of one-fourth of the total American electorate.

Which means—if my calculations are correct—that, for all our shock and awe at Trump’s supposedly amazing popularity, the enthusiasm in question is felt by little more than one-sixteenth of all American voters—an amount that would be negligible if it referred to any other subject about which pollsters might bother to inquire.

We might refer to Trump supporters as a fringe group.  Statistically-speaking, they are.  Indeed, their number is less than half the percentage of those who currently approve of the U.S. Congress.  (Presumably there is minimal overlap between the two.)

So when we—and especially our media—continue to treat this cretin as if he were a legitimate political figure, we are just being lazy, selfish hedonists.

We follow Trump’s antics for the same reason we eat junk food:  Because it provides a temporary rush of pure primal pleasure, followed by a crushing sense of shame, guilt and emptiness, which in turn can only be cured with…more junk food!

No one in the journalism profession genuinely thinks Trump is worth covering.  They cover him anyway—and we tune in—because of how morally superior it makes us feel.  We see a grown man behaving like a petulant child and we think, “Well, I may not be rich or famous, but at least I’m not a complete jerk.”

Trump’s campaign has nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with distracting ourselves from the deadly serious matters that, sooner or later, we will have to confront for real.

For now, it’s all one giant freak show, and—you know what?—we might as well enjoy it while it lasts.

In a priceless new Rolling Stone  article titled, “Inside the GOP Clown Car,” Matt Taibbi argues that we probably shouldn’t be so flippant and blasé about Trump’s total media saturation, since its perpetuation could lead, in Taibbi’s words, to “the collapse of the United States as a global superpower.”  Not to mention the generally poisonous atmosphere that his comments about women and immigrants have unleashed.

I see very little to worry about.  The environment that Trump hath wrought is ugly now, but it will pass soon enough, and equilibrium will return to our system as it always does.

I began with a comparison to Sarah Palin because I think her own character arc is instructive here.

As you’ll recall, Palin totally shook up the 2008 race when she landed on the underside of the GOP ticket, galvanizing Republican voters with passionate speeches, snappy one-liners and her inspiring, wholesome family.

And then she lost the election by 8 ½ million votes, quit her job and was forever lampooned by Tina Fey and others because—oh, that’s right—she is a total flippin’ idiot.

Palin’s status as an unqualified clown is bleeding obvious to us now, but she made quite a mess before we finally, collectively, decided to treat her like the reality TV sideshow that she is.

With Trump, there are no ambiguities whatsoever.  We know exactly how absurd he is—it’s confirmed every time he opens his mouth—and if he remains a role model for a plurality of Republican voters then, well, that’s because they’re absurd, too.

The party will eventually snap out of it, if only out of self-preservation.  In our lifetimes, neither the Democrats nor Republicans have nominated a candidate so transparently unelectable who, all the while, held no particular political views and was openly detested by virtually every other official in his own party.

Naturally, Democrats are rooting for exactly that, and the liberal media have every reason to keep pretending that this man is a real story.

If I were a Republican voter, I would be horrified by this sordid state of affairs.  As it stands, I can’t imagine being more thankful that I’m not.

That is, unless the Donald somehow secures the nomination and selects a certain former Alaska governor as his running mate.

Terrorism is a Cliché

If there is anything more depressing about the attack on Charlie Hebdo than the attack itself, it is the fact that there is nothing new or interesting to be said about it.  The context and apparent reasons for the assault are old news; as such, everything has already been said many times before.

Indeed, as I attempt to formulate my own response to this latest obscenity against human decency and the freedom of expression, I find myself merely repeating other people’s responses to other such obscenities over the last many years, both before and after September 11, 2001.

Charlie Hebdo—for the few of you who miraculously still do not know—is a French satirical newspaper operating out of Paris.  It ran continuously from 1970-1981, and then again from 1992 to the present day.  (“Hebdo” is French for “weekly,” and “Charlie” is an inside joke involving both Charles de Gaulle and Charlie Brown.)

Like The Onion here in the States, Charlie Hebdo operates on the principle that just about everything is fair game for parody and ridicule, including and especially organized religion.  As a result, the publication has regularly come under fire for its treatment of such revered figures as the Prophet Muhammad, among others.  In November 2011, such ire turned violent when the paper’s headquarters was firebombed by Muslim extremists, in response to an edition featuring a cartoon of Muhammad on its cover.

Further threats of violence against Charlie Hebdo have periodically surfaced in the three years since, and this past Wednesday, three would-be jihadists made good on that threat by storming the paper’s newsroom and murdering 12 people, including its editor-in-chief and several of its famed cartoonists.  On their way out, the assailants were heard shouting, “We have avenged the prophet!”  The killers have since been killed.  They are believed to have been connected to al Qaeda, although many details are yet unclear.

For those of us on the sidelines—we who have taken it upon ourselves merely to make sense of senseless acts like this—there is a great deal to say:  many principles to defend, many facts to establish.  However, in doing so, we are forced to repeat ourselves rather than come up with anything new.  It’s a shame we have to expend such efforts in the first place—we are, after all, applying reason to people who have none—but then again, it seems we have no other choice.  Better to reintroduce ancient clichés than bear witness to barbarism in silence.

We could start, for instance, with the old trope, “Not all Muslims are terrorists”—an assertion that is invariably preceded and/or followed by its rejoinder, “Yes, but virtually all terrorists are Muslim.”  The first statement is obviously true—only a complete idiot would argue otherwise—while the second is obviously false and yet is nonetheless, shall we say, a bit more true than most of us would like to admit.

In other words, the argument here is exactly the same one we had after the September 11 attacks—namely, “Is Islam the problem?”  If Islam is truly “a religion of peace,” then why are there so many officially Muslim nations that traffic in violence and war, using certain Islamic doctrine as justification?

Alternatively, we could expand the question to encompass religion as a whole, since there is no shortage of Christian and Jewish extremists who also take the dictates of their faiths into their own hands.  Could the root cause of ideological mass murder in the 21st century not be Islam but rather religious-based intolerance of every sort?  Have we really made no progress in this debate since the Twin Towers fell?

Whichever side you take (there are more than two), perhaps the more salient point in the present context is the level of risk one assumes in broaching this subject at all.  The way that Bill Maher’s old joke, “Never say Islam isn’t a religion of peace, because if you do, they’ll kill you,” manages to be funnier than it should be.

Because of course our primary subject of concern in the Charlie Hebdo assault is the inalienable right to express one’s views—yes, even when such views make some people uncomfortable, angry or—perish the thought!—offended.

As many of us well know, Charlie Hebdo is not the first Western publication to be physically targeted for printing provocative caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.  In 2005, a Danish newspaper called Jyllands-Posten similarly rendered Muhammad in cartoon form, in order to make a few points about free speech and religious prohibitions thereof, and within days all hell proceeded to break loose from one end of the continent to the other—an uproar that included riots, attacks on multiple European diplomatic missions and some 200 deaths, all told.

As such, because exactly this sort of thing has happened before—and quite recently, at that—we don’t need to wonder what it all means:  We can just dig up what all the smart people wrote in 2005 and 2006.

As it happens, one of the smartest and sharpest of those reactions came from an old favorite of mine, Christopher Hitchens, who wrote passionately in favor of the right to insult organized religion at all costs.  (“The babyish rumor-fueled tantrums that erupt all the time, especially in the Islamic world, show yet again that faith belongs to the spoiled and selfish childhood of our species.”)  And so we have a perfectly cogent analysis of the Charlie Hebdo situation penned by someone who’s been dead for three years.

As well, in case you need further proof of the dull repetitiveness of the West’s run-ins with theocratic loony toons, I would direct you to a wonderfully illuminating chat in 2010 between Hitchens and Salman Rushdie—a man who, despite radical Islam’s best efforts, is still very much alive.  Their talk considers several key points about the Danish cartoon fiasco, and watching it today, one is taken aback by how perfectly it corresponds to the mess at Charlie Hebdo, as if the two events were completely interchangeable.  In many respects, they are.

For instance, Rushdie proposes dividing the central question about free speech into two parts.  First:  Are news outlets duty-bound to reprint offensive cartoons out of solidarity with a publication that has been attacked?  And second:  Should that first paper have been more circumspect about printing those images in the first place, knowing the fuss that it would cause?

In other words, is the right to be offensive sometimes trumped by the wisdom to hold back?  Is there a distinction between offending in order to make a point and offending for its own sake?  Is the First Amendment not always as important as good taste?

By now, there has been exhaustive back-and-forth online and in print about these very important questions, including the charge that some of the folks at Charlie Hebdo are just plain racist.  That the “I am Charlie” solidarity is a function of the relatively high level of anti-Muslim prejudice around the world today, and that a comparable paper that had published anti-Semitic or anti-Catholic cartoons would not enjoy such international goodwill following a terrorist attack.  As many have said, it’s easy to defend free speech when you happen to agree with the speech in question.

My answer to this:  Who cares?

The right to free expression should be defended regardless of the content, and the fact that we’re less likely to defend speech we don’t like is precisely why we have the First Amendment in the first place.

The question about good taste is an interesting one, but in this instance it’s also, finally, beside the point.  The only reason we’re wondering whether the editors of Charlie Hebdo should have used more discretion is because their cartoons yielded a violent response.  If satirical images of the Prophet Muhammad were not so radioactive—if they didn’t so predictably lead some people to go out and commit mass murder—then taste would be the only thing to discuss, and the First Amendment would hardly enter into it.  We would talk about provocative religious images the way we talk about provocative non-religious images:  With passion and indignation, but without the hysterical claim that they should not exist at all.

No, the real problem here is the lack of sophistication inherent in those who don’t have the stomach for ideas they don’t share, and who would rather such ideas not be uttered and are prepared to threaten and/or attack those who utter them.

And the problem behind the problem, like every other cliché I’ve noted, has been astutely espoused in the past, in this case by comedian Lewis Black.  The central fact about al Qaeda and their ilk, Black surmised on his album The End of the Universe, is that they have no sense of humor.  That they take their faith literally and without a whiff of irony or self-criticism, resulting in untold misery for millions of people.

“Patriotism is important, and religion is vital,” said Black, “But without a sense of humor, religion and patriotism can get crazy […] and we see that in our enemy.”

Black once wrote a memoir titled Nothing’s Sacred, and satire is founded upon that very notion:  No subject is out of bounds, nor should it be.  This means that so long as satirists exist, someone somewhere is going to be offended by what they have to say.  There is no getting around this fact.  Individual writers and publications are free to self-censor for reasons of taste, but it should be their decision alone, and they should never be compelled to restrict their content out of fear of violence.

The problem, you see, is not the people who offend.  The problem is the people who (to quote Hitchens again) are determined to be offended and, paradoxically, will stop at nothing to prevent the rest of us from offending them.

Maybe I could explain this phenomenon better, but it would just be one more cliché.

Fat Facts

To the lay person, it is emblematic of the irony and delight of science that eating foods with high levels of fat will cause one to lose weight.

It seems counterintuitive, if not outright impossible, that such a thing should be true—how can fat make you less fat?—yet it has apparently been confirmed in the past week in what has been billed as a major new study on health and nutrition funded by the National Institutes of Health and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

For this experiment, researchers hired 150 people to follow a certain type of diet for one full year.  Half of the subjects were instructed to mostly eat foods rich in carbohydrates and low in fat—bread, cereal and the like—while the other half did the reverse, roughly mimicking the Atkins diet of meat, eggs, cheese and other staples high in protein and fat.  Neither group was required to alter its exercise habits, nor, interestingly, was it subject to any calorie limits.

When the year was up, both groups had managed to lose weight, but the people in the low-carb, high-fat group had lost eight pounds more on average.  As well, the Atkins-like regimen proved more successful in reducing total body fat while increasing total muscle mass, thereby making one less susceptible to heart disease and similar maladies down the road.

In fact, the notion that dietary fat can help you lose weight is not a new discovery.  To the contrary, many nutrition experts (not just Dr. Atkins) have advocated such an approach to dieting for quite some time.

What is more, the basic science behind this phenomenon is not terribly complicated.  In brief:  High-fat, high-protein foods fill you up and also make you feel full, while certain carbohydrates—particularly sugar—fill you up but make you think you’re still hungry.

In other words, the difference between fats and carbs is as much a mental issue as a physical one.  A serving of meat may contain more calories than a serving of cake, but the meat will satisfy your hunger until your next meal, while the cake will just make you eat more cake.

This much was old news to most health experts (if not to ordinary Americans), and it helps explain why the people in this new study, permitted to consume as many calories as their hearts desired, would yield the results that they did.

It’s reassuring when things happen exactly as science says they will.

As to the matter of high-fat foods strengthening muscle mass (and vice versa), I can affirm the hypothesis from personal experience:  As a little leaguer in my mid-teens, I could crank baseballs over the outfield fence with minimal effort.  Today, in the aftermath of a sustained culinary regimen consisting largely of bagels and whiskey, I can barely lift the bat over my shoulders.  (Not that I ever try.)

My object at the time was simply to lose weight, which I did, but it hardly occurred to me that merely avoiding fatty foods was not the only way to do it—nor, more importantly, that it was probably the worst way of all, insomuch as it would result in depleting precisely the sort of bodily material—namely, lean muscle mass—that one ought to retain no matter how many pounds one wishes to shed.

I’d like to think that I was just being an idiot and that everyone else knows these sorts of vital physiological facts.  Yet I harbor doubts that this is actually the case, and that much of today’s dieting community is still going about it all wrong.

They are hardly to blame for it.  For starters, America’s health professionals, for all their tireless research, have hardly arrived at a consensus as to what is truly “right” and “wrong” when it comes to leading a healthy lifestyle.  We’re pretty sure about fruits, vegetables and exercise, but everything else is forever subject to revision and to an individual’s own requirements.  As Lewis Black said, “What’s good for one of you will kill the person sitting next to you.”

Further, as the articles about this new study point out, the idea that high-fat foods are good for weight loss was anathema to most Americans until fairly recently.  The conventional wisdom used to be precisely the opposite, hence the proliferation of food products advertised as being “low-fat” and “fat-free,” while all the time containing the sorts of added sugars and other undesirables that, as the science would now have it, have probably been slowly killing us all along.

But that, in the end, is what science is all about.  It’s a continual search for truth that rarely occurs in a straight line.  Often, it is an exercise in irony, as we find things to be true that we always assumed to be false, and vice versa.  In one sense, this means taking a leap of faith in the promise of the scientific method itself.  But then the scientific method is specifically and painstakingly designed to require so such faith at all.