Stop Punching People in the Face

Leave it to America’s far left to make fighting Nazis seem unreasonable.

This past Saturday, my hometown of Boston, Mass., became a focal point in the racial and political unrest that has seized the nation since the deadly white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., the previous weekend.  In the City of Beans, a gang of similarly-minded individuals planned to hold a “free speech rally” on Boston Common—speech that presumably would include incitements to racial and anti-Semitic violence, à la Charlottesville.

In response, city residents mounted what could only be described as an overwhelming show of counter-force:  a phalanx of 40,000 sign-wielding liberals who marched two miles from Roxbury to the Common in a concerted effort to demonstrate just how undesirable racism has become in this increasingly welcoming New England town.

Of those 40,000 people, 33 were arrested for disorderly conduct such as throwing rocks and bottles at police and instigating scuffles with those they deemed to be their mortal enemies—i.e., Nazis, Klansmen and the like.

In such a contentious, emotionally-wrought environment, 33 arrests might seem like small potatoes—a negligible amount of hooliganism in an otherwise respectful and orderly exercise of free assembly in an uncertain time.

Indeed, it would be an impressively small figure, except for one thing:  There were virtually no white supremacists on Boston Common that day.

Yes:  Initially, several representatives of America’s leading neo-Nazi groups—including those who appeared in Charlottesville—were slotted to speak at the Common’s Parkman Bandstand on Saturday.  However, because the blowback to this event was so ferocious—on the part of both ordinary citizens and the city’s mayor and chief of police—nearly all of the most contemptible and poisonous of these genocidal thugs opted to get the hell out of town before the thing ever really got off the ground.

What remained of this “free speech rally,” then, was a disparate, minuscule and heavily cordoned-off collection of libertarian weirdos whose unifying purpose seemed to be nothing more concrete than to celebrate the right to gather in a public park and make an unholy spectacle of yourself.  Among the few who actually spoke (not that anyone could hear them) were an Indian-American entrepreneur running for U.S. Senate in 2018, along with the deaconess of a Rhode Island religious sect whose rituals include smoking cannabis through a giant ram’s horn.

There were no Confederate battle flags.  No Nazi salutes.  No tiki torches.  No “Jews will not replace us.”  No nothing.

In short—and to the world’s great relief—Boston was not Charlottesville.  Not by a long shot.  And yet, by their conduct, certain members of the heaving counter-protest seemed determined to believe that it was, and that the men and women squeezed into the Parkman Bandstand—some of whom carried rainbow flags and signs reading “Black Lives DO Matter”—were an existential threat to liberal democracy and deserving of the maximal abuse one can inflict in broad daylight while surrounded by Boston’s finest.

The result—as seen on TV—was that a handful of hapless white men in red caps—some of them undoubtedly scared out of their wits—were pushed, shoved, screamed at and put in such danger of serious bodily harm that they required a police escort back to their vehicles or some other private space.  Indeed, without all those cops standing nearby, there is little doubt the scene would’ve turned real ugly, real fast.

This will not stand, my friends.  This aggression will not stand.

If combating racism is to be the great mission of the Resistance under Donald Trump—and why on Earth shouldn’t it be?—we must follow the example of the 39,967 who did not cause trouble in Boston, while robustly condemning the 33 who couldn’t summon the willpower to act like normal members of society.

Don’t ever forget:  The whole point of opposing white supremacy is that violence, hatred and intimidation are intrinsically harmful to democracy and all human relations.  Accordingly, the anti-fascist left cannot become associated—even for a moment—with violence, hatred and intimidation.  If we want history to view us as the good guys in this fight, we need to earn that distinction by behaving better than our opponents.  We cannot allow ourselves to sink to their level.

In his insane press conference last Tuesday, Donald Trump attempted to draw a moral equivalence between white supremacists and those who resist them, suggesting that the “alt-left” can be just as intolerant and thuggish as the alt-right.  Well, guess what:  Every time a member of our team does something stupid—such as punching a Trump supporter in the face—we make Trump’s point for him.  And every time we tacitly (if not openly) cheer that stupidity on, we become complicit in fostering the type of culture that we claim to find un-American and repulsive.

Is that what we want?  To prove that Nazis are only slightly less respectable than we are?  With the future of Western civilization at stake, I think we ought to aim a bit higher than that.

Repeat after me:  Nothing good can ever come from violence.  Being officially opposed to fascism does not entitle you to employ fascistic tactics to achieve desired ends, and there is nothing more fascistic than threatening physical harm upon those with whom you disagree—up to and including those who ruddy well deserve it.

To that end, our challenge today is to not permit the cause of anti-fascism to be defined by the group that has made a portmanteau of that very term:  “Antifa.”  New to the American vernacular, but in fact derived from European agitators in the 1930s, Antifa—a loose confederation of quasi-anarchists, helpfully profiled in this month’s Atlantic—defines itself in explicitly confrontational and often violent terms, and seems interested not in winning the understanding of its enemies but in beating them into submission.  You know:  Just like Nazis.

This is not the way to win the moral high ground, folks.  And it sure ain’t the way to win elections.

Equally dangerous—and equally worth underlining—is the left’s abandonment of all subtlety and nuance in the name of effecting a more multicultural world.  If there is any lesson we should draw from the protests in Boston, it’s to resist the urge to accuse anyone we don’t like as a card-carrying racist or anti-Semite.  While it’s apparently true that every Nazi and Klansman in America is an enthusiastic Trump supporter, not every Trump supporter is a Nazi or Klansman—nor, indeed, is every conservative or libertarian a Trump supporter in any way, shape or form.

Every time we liberals aggressively assume otherwise—as practically everyone in Boston did, despite ample evidence to the contrary, both before and after the fact—we turn ourselves into the hysterical, intolerant caricatures that the alt-right suspects we’ve always been, making it that much more difficult to change hearts and minds or be taken seriously by those who are skeptical of our true motives.

As I watched the scene on Boston Common—crisply described by Matt Taibbi on Twitter as “basically thirty people or so surrounded by the whole city of Boston”—I understood why conservatives feel under siege by a culture that doesn’t seem to care what they think.  The way counter-protesters dismissed the very idea of a rally that welcomed unpopular opinions—the way Police Commissioner Bill Evans carelessly remarked, “Their message isn’t what we want to hear”—it’s no wonder the alt-right has come to label us all as “snowflakes” who cannot handle the open airing of competing views in the public square.

Having been on the winning side of virtually every battle in America’s ongoing culture war, it is not necessary for liberals to tar and feather every person on Earth who might possibly speak—or think—an unwelcome idea.  Witch hunts should be limited to when there are actual witches on site—as there were in Charlottesville last week, and as there is in the Oval Office right now—and when they occur, they should be conducted by the forces of reason, restraint and truth, and not by Antifa, which traffics in bullying, propaganda and sometimes even death.

There is nothing to be gained by playing as dirty—or even one-tenth as dirty—as the darkest forces that have ever bestrode the face of America.  Morally-speaking, standing toe-to-toe against literal Nazis is the easiest battle any of us will ever be required to wage, and we would do well always to remember the wise man who famously cautioned, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

This is our moment to prove that we leftists really are on the right side of history, and with modern-day Klansmen on the march and a racial arsonist in the White House, there is absolutely no margin for error.

This is not a drill, people.  We have to get this one right.

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The Popularity Paradox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

A Spot of Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Political Sniping

Warning:  The following contains spoilers about the movie American Sniper.  Proceed with caution.

Reading the various reactions to Clint Eastwood’s new movie American Sniper, two facts immediately leap out.

First:  No one can seem to agree on the movie’s point of view vis-à-vis the Iraq War.  Some say it’s neutral or apolitical, while others consider it a full-throated endorsement of the theory that American involvement in Mesopotamia was (and is) a good idea.

And second:  In nearly every analysis of what American Sniper is about—and whether it’s any good—the conclusion perfectly matches the politics of the person making the analysis.  Generally speaking, those who opposed the Iraq War also dislike the film, while those who considered the war necessary and just think the movie is great.  Those whose politics are ambivalent, private or nonexistent fall somewhere in between.

Joined with the debate about the movie’s version of Iraq is the depiction of its protagonist, Chris Kyle, the real-life Navy SEAL who killed more Iraqis than any other sniper and, as a consequence, spent the rest of his life struggling with posttraumatic stress disorder.  That is, until he was killed by a fellow veteran who was, himself, stricken with PTSD.

Does American Sniper portray Kyle as a pure All-American Hero and—far more interestingly—should it have?  Here, too, individual answers seem to track with whatever people happened to already think about these subjects.

What is clear, in any case, is that Kyle is given highly sympathetic treatment by Eastwood and is meant to be shown, in the end, as a Good Guy.  What is more, the movie is ultimately meant to be about Kyle and Kyle alone—his experience, his struggles—and is not necessarily interested in the world that is going on around him.

Is this a valid approach to filmmaking?  Can a movie like this be truly apolitical, as so many critics say it is?

In a fiery column in Rolling Stone, journalist Matt Taibbi says no.  Referring to “the Rumsfelds and Cheneys and other officials up the chain” as “the real villains in this movie,” Taibbi argues, “Sometimes there’s no such thing as ‘just a human story.’  Sometimes a story is meaningless or worse without real context, and this is one of them.”

Taking this theory a step further, I think it’s worth considering whether any movie can lay claim to being completely removed from politics of one sort or another.  Or, indeed, whether there is any point in trying.  My inkling is that it can’t and there isn’t, and it’s just as well that this is so.

As it happens, this is not the first time that an ostensibly “personal” Clint Eastwood project has been attacked for having a secret political agenda.

In 2004, Eastwood made a movie called Million Dollar Baby, about a woman who believes her sole purpose in life is to be a professional boxer.  (Warning:  Massive spoilers ahead!)  When she is sucker-punched by an opponent and left paralyzed below the neck, she decides she has no further reason to live, and pleads with her trainer and only friend (played by Eastwood) to unplug her life support and allow her to die.  After a period of struggle and a talk with a local priest, he does just that.

Because both the boxer (played by Hilary Swank) and the trainer are shown as sympathetic characters, the movie was considered by some to be an “endorsement” of assisted suicide, leading to a brief but intense national debate about both the movie and the issue itself.  How irresponsible, many said, for a serious film to portray assisted suicide in a sort-of positive light.

Against this wave of condemnation, the critic Roger Ebert offered the following rebuke“Million Dollar Baby raises fundamental moral issues.  At a moment of crisis, the characters arrive at a decision.  I do not agree with their decision.  But here is the crucial point:  I do believe that these characters would do what they do in this film.  It is entirely consistent with who they are and everything we have come to know about them.”

In other words, movies are about individuals, not causes.  Directors are free to have their characters behave however is natural to them, and it is up to us, the audience, to make moral judgments.  In all cases, however, we should understand such behavior as being specific to those characters—Chris Kyle included—and not infer them to be representative of any larger philosophy of life.

The problem, though, is that we just can’t help ourselves.  As Taibbi points out vis-à-vis American Sniper, movies do not exist in a vacuum.  It’s silly and naïve to think otherwise.

The truth is that everything is political, whether we realize it or not.  Politics is life.  The word itself, in its original Greek form, means “relating to citizens,” meaning every one of us is on the hook.  So long as you’re alive and occasionally leave the house to interact with the rest of humanity (tiresome as it can often be), then you are engaging in the art of politics.

As such, once a movie presumes to be about anything at all, it becomes a political document, and we are free—encouraged, even—to wade through any possible larger meanings it might hold, whatever the director’s intent.

In the current Oscar race, for instance, the big pre-Sniper controversy concerned whether Ava DuVernay’s Selma is unfair in its depiction of Lyndon Johnson circa 1965.  Because it’s about the Civil Rights Movement and its present-day parallels, Selma is political to its core.  (Its theme song, “Glory,” even includes a reference to Ferguson, Mo.)

However, take a deeper look and you’ll find politics intruding upon every last entry on the Oscar shortlist.

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is ostensibly about nothing more than the experience of growing up in 21st century America.  But it’s also about single mothers, deadbeat fathers, alcoholic stepfathers, inspiring teachers, and the virtues of hard work.  Do you mean to tell me those are not political issues?  Open a newspaper:  When have they ever not been on the front page?

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is a dark comedy about a washed-up movie star attempting to resurrect himself by putting on a Broadway show.  As such, it’s also about the nature of celebrity and fame, the integrity of art and (again) what it means to be a good father.  All political matters.

Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is about an aspiring drummer and the terrifying music teacher who pushes him to within an inch of his life.  Which means it’s really about the costs of ambition and the lengths that some people will go to achieve greatness and immortality.  In America’s hyper-competitive culture, coupled with our meritocratic national work ethic, what could be more political than that?

And so forth.

So when people say that American Sniper is not a political movie, they are wrong twice.  First, in the view that the movie has no opinion about America’s adventures in Iraq (to wit:  could it really be a coincidence that the one soldier who questions the war’s purpose ends up getting shot in the face?).  And second, in the implication that a Navy sniper’s psychological profile has no political dimension.  As if killing Arabs for a living were a purely personal matter.

Indeed, if American Sniper were truly non-political, we would not be arguing about it at all.  We wouldn’t need to.  And what a boring, worthless movie it would be.

No, the film’s inherent relevance to our national conversation about foreign affairs is what makes it so valuable and compelling.

This doesn’t mean it isn’t a deeply personal story as well.  Of course it is.  That’s what the cliché “the personal is political” is all about.  Chris Kyle’s suffering is real, but it has a context that we must acknowledge in order for it to make any sense.  We can only heed Eastwood’s central message—America must take better care of its veterans—by understanding what makes their return to civilian life so difficult.  There’s no way to do that without returning, sooner or later, to the policies that sent people like Kyle to Iraq in the first place.

Eastwood has been rightly criticized for simplifying this narrative into an old-fashioned “good guys vs. bad guys” story (every Iraqi in the film serves no purpose except to be killed), but that doesn’t mean the rest of us should follow his lead.  Judging from the contentious response it has garnered thus far, we haven’t.  However unwittingly, American Sniper has re-ignited one of the most important debates in contemporary American life—namely, have the past dozen years of U.S. foreign policy been one giant dead end?

To that extent, the movie has served a useful purpose.  Through the profile of one person, however lionized, it has provoked people to think more seriously about a subject of global importance they would just as well ignore.

Not bad for a movie that isn’t interested in politics.