You Have No Choice

Two telling moments from the political dog days of summer.

First, from President Donald Trump at his most recent Triumph of the Will-style rally, in Manchester, New Hampshire: “If, for some reason, I were not to have won the [2016] election, these markets would have crashed. That will happen even more so in 2020. You have no choice but to vote for me, because your 401(k), everything is going to be down the tubes. Whether you love me or hate me, you gotta vote for me.”

Second, from former Second Lady Jill Biden, at a bookstore in nearby Nashua, speaking on behalf of her husband, Joe: “Your candidate might be better on, I don’t know, health care, than Joe is, but you’ve got to look at who’s going to win this election. And maybe you have to swallow a little bit and say, ‘OK, I personally like so-and-so better,’ but your bottom line has to be that we have to beat Trump.”

Here we have two very different people speaking in two very different tones to two very different audiences, yet somehow the message is exactly the same—namely, the message conveyed on the famous 1973 cover of National Lampoon: “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.”

That, in so many words, is where we stand with our two likely presidential nominees in 2020: Vote for me, or else. Nice country you have here; it’d be a shame if something were to happen to it.

Our votes are not being sought. They are being extorted. Democracy at the point of a gun.

To be fair, Jill Biden is not her husband; nor, in any case, could her comment reasonably be taken as a direct threat to those who might take their electoral business elsewhere. (Trump, as ever, is another story.) No doubt she would characterize her “swallow a little bit” plea merely as an appeal to strategic pragmatism, seeing the big picture, etc. Indeed, if anything, her tacit acknowledgment that the former vice president isn’t anybody’s idea of a perfect candidate betrays a level of modesty and class that too few candidates (and/or their spouses) possess—not least in the crucible of a campaign.

All the same, there is something profoundly dispiriting about the wife and leading spokesperson for a major presidential contender resorting to lesser-of-two-evils talk a full 11 months before the party’s nominating convention. How sad—how pathetic—that the woman who knows Joe Biden’s strengths and charms more deeply than anyone alive finds it necessary to pitch her husband for the highest office in the land like he’s a used car with a better-than-decent chance of making it over the state line without losing all four tires.

Is it really too much to ask that our actions in the voting booth be motivated by something other than fear, dread or a sense of grudging, soul-crushing obligation? Must we be told that the primary—if not sole—reason to fill out a ballot a particular way is to head off an extinction-level event (e.g., four more years of Trump)? That if we don’t fall in line behind The One True King, everything we hold dear in this world will be flushed down the toilet?

Not to be overly sentimental, but what ever happened to the happy warrior? The guy who enters the arena with such joy—such clarity of moral and civic purpose—that he earns not only the public’s vote but also its admiration and respect?

Will there be anyone in 2020 who campaigns on the audacity of hope?

At a fundraiser in the closing days of 2016, Hillary Clinton reportedly quipped, “I’m the only thing standing between you and the abyss,” unwittingly channeling the resignation so much of the American left felt about voting for such a nauseatingly flawed candidate. On the right, meanwhile, were the likes of Michael Anton, whose inflammatory but widely-read essay, “The Flight 93 Election,” argued more or less the same thing from the opposite direction—namely, that Trump was the bulwark and Clinton was the abyss.

Across the political spectrum, it became both a joke and an article of faith that no one was truly happy with their options on November 8, and that a vote for Candidate X was meant primarily—if not exclusively—as a vote against Candidate Y.

But did it really need to be so?

Perhaps my memory is marred by unwarranted nostalgia, but I do not recall checking the box for Barack Obama in 2008 on the grounds that John McCain presented an existential threat to democracy or world peace (his running mate notwithstanding). Nor did I feel as such about Mitt Romney four years later, weird and obnoxious though he was.

In fact, I voted for Obama because I liked him a very great deal—his character, his ideas, his unique place in U.S. history—and affirmatively wanted him as both the chief executive and figurehead of the great nation I call home, and I am quite satisfied with what I ultimately got.

There is no compelling reason why every presidential election shouldn’t follow this same rubric, whereby candidates for high office present themselves as the means to a bright future irrespective of the alternative, whose victory would represent something more than the mere dodging of a painful historical bullet.

In 2016, with the slogan “Make America Great Again,” Donald Trump won by campaigning on yesterday.  With any luck at all, the winner in 2020 will be whoever campaigns on tomorrow.

Advertisements

To Love a Country

In a 2007 Republican presidential primary debate, Mitt Romney was asked, “What do you dislike most about America?”

To the shock of nobody, Romney dodged the question completely, responding, “Gosh, I love America,” adding, “What makes America the greatest nation in the world is the heart of the American people—hard-working, innovative, risk-taking, God-loving, family-oriented American people.”

It was a lovely thought, perfectly in keeping with the public persona of the ex-governor, now-senator we have come to know and, um, not completely hate.

Really, with a dozen years of hindsight, the most remarkable thing about that moment was that the question was even asked—that someone angling to be America’s commander-in-chief was challenged in a public forum to critique the very country he hoped to lead.

Indeed, when Romney took another whack at the presidency in 2012, he released a memoir of sorts, No Apology, whose title more or less summed up the attitude of his campaign.  As far as he was concerned, America is an idyllic land of milk and honey that has only ever been a force for good in the world, for which it should feel nothing but unadulterated, chest-thumping pride. 

As you’ll recall, President Obama’s greatest sin in office, according to Romney and others, was to have had the temerity to apologize for America’s various historical blunders—particularly on matters of race and foreign policy—thereby implying the nation is somehow less than perfect.  The nerve!

While Romney himself has since slunk off into complete obscurity—i.e., the Senate—his view of the United States as a moral dynamo on the world stage whose superiority must never be questioned has only hardened as Republican Party orthodoxy in the years since.

Or so we were informed last week by the current president, Donald Trump, who in a Twitter broadside against four congresswomen that managed to blend howling racism with wholesale incoherence, argued that anyone who is skeptical about how the United States is run—including those who have been elected to run it—has no business residing within the country’s borders and ought to “go back” to the far-flung lands “from which they came.”

“IF YOU ARE NOT HAPPY HERE,” the president tweeted, “YOU CAN LEAVE!”

Beyond the irony that three-fourths of the congresswomen in question were, in fact, born in the United States, it has been duly noted that few people in public life have been more openly scornful of U.S. foreign and domestic policy over the years than Trump himself.  Indeed, for all the money and privilege—untaxed and unchecked, respectively—that has spilled into his lap practically since birth, the president never seems to run out of grievances about the place that has handed him everything on a silver platter, up to and including its highest public office.

And yet.

Setting aside the singular, noxious bigotry that informs much of our Dear Leader’s enmity toward a republic founded on the principles of liberty, pluralism and equal justice under the law, Trump is absolutely correct in expressing his misgivings about his homeland without fear of persecution or prejudice.  He is right to assert—as he so memorably did in a 2017 interview on Fox News—that America is not “so innocent” in its behavior toward its geopolitical adversaries and, by implication, shouldn’t be held up as the moral paragon that the Mitt Romneys of the world would have you believe it is.

In other words, if you want an ironclad rebuke to the tweets of Donald Trump, look no further than the actions of Donald Trump.

That said, the president’s personal hypocrisy on this matter needn’t obscure the deeper truth, which is that the greatness of America resides precisely in the right of every one of its citizens to criticize it, because criticism, in the right hands, is among the sincerest expressions of patriotism and love.

Surely, Frederick Douglass had a few choice words for his mother country throughout his life—words that, we can safely say, have redounded to America’s benefit in the long run.  Ditto for the likes of Martin Luther King and Susan B. Anthony and Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader and innumerable other restless rabble-rousers who found a glaring blemish in the national complexion and took it upon themselves to fix it.

Criticizing your country is the first step to perfecting it.  It’s how you keep your country honest, challenging it to live up to its loftiest ideals.

Why settle for anything less?

Making the Case

“You think a lot about people you encounter, and there are a number of them in our community who voted for Barack Obama and Donald Trump and Mike Pence and me.  And one thing you realize […] is that it means that voters are maybe not as neatly ideological as a lot of the commentary assumes.”

So said Pete Buttigieg—the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and one of the two-dozen Democrats running for president in 2020—making arguably the most succinct possible case for electing a so-called “moderate” as the party’s standard-bearer against Donald Trump in the election next November.

Needless to say (but why not?), the question of what kind of Democrat ought to represent America’s loyal opposition in 2019 and beyond is the singular point of contention that primary voters will—and should—be debating over the next year and change.  Broadly-speaking, the eventual nominee could come from three possible spots on the ideological spectrum—the center, the left, or the far left—and a great deal depends on whether the Democrats’ perception of the country’s overall political bent matches the reality thereof.

Before we go any further, allow me to disclose loudly and clearly that, barring highly-unforeseen circumstances, I will be voting for the Democratic nominee on November 3, 2020, whoever he or she happens to be.  With Trump as the incumbent, I would happily and unreservedly support any of the possible alternatives without a shadow of a second thought.  Elections are about choices, and lesser-of-two-evils is the name of the game.

One presumes, of course, that a certain percentage of the electorate—somewhere between 40 and 45 percent, say—is on precisely the same wavelength as I am, and can be counted upon to reflexively line up behind the Democratic nominee, come hell or high water—a near-perfect reflection, ironically enough, of the #MAGA rubes who will stick with the president even if/when he murders somebody on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight.

In truth, when you add up every voter who, for all intents and purposes, has already made up his or her mind—i.e., will definitely vote for Trump or will definitely vote for his main challenger—you would be lucky to have more than 10 percent of the electorate leftover.

And yet, as ever, that 10 percent (or whatever) is precisely where the whole damn thing will be decided.  Indeed, while it’s true that every presidential election in our lifetimes has come down to the comparatively miniscule slice of the public known as “swing voters,” the singularly polarizing nature of the Trump era has shrunk America’s protean middle to little more than a sliver, thereby increasing the power and influence of every member therein, for better and for worse.

All of which is to affirm Pete Buttigieg’s implicit argument about how to win the 2020 election:  By making yourself appealing to the widest cross-section of the public as possible.  That begins with assuming that every genuinely undecided voter is persuadable, and acting accordingly.

Practically, this would certainly include venturing into enemy territory—Fox News—to make the case for why you’d be a leader for all Americans, not just those who watch MSNBC.  (Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders have smartly done this already, while Elizabeth Warren has foolishly, and loudly, refused.)  As well, it would require not smearing half the electorate as a bunch of freeloaders (á la Mitt Romney) or a “basket of deplorables” (á la Hillary Clinton).

In truth, it would entail little more than taking the American people seriously and treating them, more or less, like adults.

When Buttigieg reminds us about a certain, non-trivial chunk of our fellow citizens who voted for Obama in 2012 only to switch to Trump in 2016—and who, presumably, could swing back in the future—we are forced to reckon with the possibility that these folks’ political loyalties are a function of something other than racial resentment or any sort of coherent philosophy about the role of government in a free society.

Maybe, unlike us, they don’t spend 12 hours a day watching the news break on basic cable and Twitter, absorbing every last detail about life inside the beltway.  Maybe they lead busy, apolitical lives and haven’t given much thought lately to Robert Mueller or Roe v. Wade.

Maybe their tastes in presidents are more instinctual and elemental than weighing one set of policy proposals against another.  Maybe they voted for Obama because he promised them better healthcare, and for Trump because he promised them…better healthcare.

At the risk of reductionism and oversimplicity, maybe the secret to winning an election is vowing to give people what they want and not calling them idiots more often than is strictly necessary.

Would this necessitate misrepresenting, watering down or otherwise compromising your core moral and political values?  Only if you believe those values aren’t worth defending to a possibly skeptical audience.  And if that’s the case, why in holy hell should anyone vote for you in the first place?

The Man Who Wouldn’t Be King

It says a lot about America that John McCain was never elected president.  It says even more that, in retrospect, we sort of wish he had been.

Indeed, all the way back in 2001, during an interview with Charlie Rose (ahem), Bill Maher cited McCain—recently defeated in the GOP primaries by George W. Bush—as among his favorite Republican politicians.  “He’s everyone’s favorite,” said Rose, to which Maher dismissively retorted, “Then why doesn’t he win?”

It’s a damn good question, and a useful lens through which to view our entire political system.  As McCain clings ever-more-precariously to life—having spent the last 10 months ravaged by glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer—we might reflect on the strange way that our most accomplished and admired public officials tend not to rise all the way to the Oval Office—and why a great many more never bother to run in the first place.

On paper, McCain would seem exactly the sort of person the Founding Fathers had in mind as a national leader:  A scrappy rebel from a distinguished family who proves his mettle on the battlefield, then parlays that fame into a steady career in public service.  (He was first elected to Congress in 1982 and has never held another job.)

While hardly a first-class intellect—he famously graduated near the bottom of his class at Annapolis—McCain’s grit and endurance through five-and-a-half years of torture and deprivation in a Vietnamese prison forever burnished his reputation as among the most indefatigable men in American life—someone who would speak truth to bullshit and hold no loyalties except to his own conscience.  Having cheated death multiple times, here was a man with precious little to fear and even less to lose.

Against this noble backdrop, it would be the understatement of the year to say that, as a two-time presidential candidate, John McCain was a complicated and contradictory figure—perhaps even a tragic one.  In 2000, he established his political persona as a crusty, “straight-talking” “maverick,” only to be felled in South Carolina by a racist Bush-sanctioned robocall operation that McCain was too gentlemanly to condemn.  (The robocalls implied, among other things, that McCain’s adopted daughter from Bangladesh was an out-of-wedlock “love child.”)

Eight years later, having learned a thing or three about brass-knuckles campaigning, McCain scraped and clawed his way to the Republican nomination—besting no fewer than 11 competitors—only to throw it all away with the single most irresponsible decision of his life:  His selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate.

With nearly a decade of hindsight, the science is in that choosing Palin—a world-class ignoramus and America’s gateway drug to Donald Trump—constituted the selling of McCain’s soul for the sake of political expediency.  Rather than running with his good friend (and non-Republican) Joe Lieberman and losing honorably, he opted to follow his advisers’ reckless gamble and win dishonorably.  That he managed to lose anyway—the final, unalterable proof that the universe has a sense of humor—was the perfect denouement to this most Sisyphean of presidential odysseys.  He was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.

The truth is that McCain wouldn’t have won the 2008 election no matter what he did, and this had very little to do with him.  After eight years of George W. Bush—a member of McCain’s party, with approval ratings below 30 percent in his final months—the thrust of history was simply too strong for anyone but a Democrat to prevail that November.  (Since 1948, only once has the same party won three presidential elections in a row.)

If McCain was ever going to become president, it would’ve been in 2000.  Pre-9/11, pre-Iraq War and post-Bill Clinton, a colorful, self-righteous veteran could’ve wiped the floor with a stiff, boring policy wonk like Al Gore.

Why didn’t he get that chance?  The official explanation (as mentioned) is the reprehensible smear campaign Team Bush unloaded in the South Carolina primary.  However, the more complete answer is that Republican primary voters throughout the country simply didn’t view McCain as one of their own.  Compared to Bush—a born-again Christian with an unambiguously conservative record—McCain was a quasi-liberal apostate who called Jerry Falwell an “agent of intolerance” and seemed to hold a large chunk of the GOP base in bemused contempt.

McCain’s problem, in other words, was the primary system itself, in which only the most extreme and partisan among us actually participate, thereby disadvantaging candidates who—whether through their ideas or their character—might appeal to a wider, more ideologically diverse audience later on.  Recent casualties of this trend include the likes of John Kasich and John Huntsman on the right to John Edwards and (arguably) Bernie Sanders on the left.

On the other hand, sometimes primary voters will do precisely the opposite by selecting nominees whom they perceive to be the most “electable”—a strategy that, in recent decades, has produced an almost perfect record of failure, from John Kerry to Mitt Romney to Hillary Clinton.

By being his best self in 2000 and his worst self in 2008, McCain managed to fall into both traps and end up nowhere.  Indeed, he may well have been a victim of bad timing more than anything else—as was, say, Chris Christie by not running in 2012 or Hillary Clinton by not running in 2004.

Then again, all of history is based on contingencies, and it is the job of the shrewd politician to calibrate his strengths to the tenor of the moment without sacrificing his core identity.  However appealing he may be in a vacuum, he must be the right man at the right time—the one thing Barack Obama and Donald Trump had in common.

As Brian Wilson would say, maybe John McCain just wasn’t made for these times.  Maybe he wasn’t elected president because America didn’t want him to be president.  Maybe his purpose in life was to be exactly what he was:  A fiery renegade senator who drove everybody a little crazy and loved every minute of it.  Maybe he wouldn’t have been any good as commander-in-chief anyhow—too impulsive, too hawkish—and maybe we’re better off not knowing for sure.

Will someone of McCain’s ilk ever rise to the nation’s highest office in the future?  Wouldn’t it be nice if they did?

Missing Mitt

Here’s a question for all you liberals out there:  Would you have voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 if you knew it would’ve prevented the rise of Donald Trump in 2016?

This scenario is hardly an idle fantasy.  Romney was, in fact, 2012’s Republican nominee for president, and, for a time, he had a real shot of defeating Barack Obama in his pursuit of a second term.  Indeed, Romney spent most of October of that year either leading or tied in the polls—a fact long forgotten by history—and had he succeeded in becoming America’s 45th commander-in-chief, it stands to reason that a certain New York real estate developer would not have run against him four years down the road.

Certainly, the emerging conventional wisdom about Donald Trump is that he jumped into the 2016 race—and is now governing—as a direct (and plainly racist) reaction to a black man having run the country for the last eight years.  In effect, Obama’s Obama-ness is the greatest—and often only—determining factor in how Trump makes big decisions.

In the absence of a two-term black president—and in the presence of Romney, arguably the whitest man who’s ever lived—Trump would’ve had no immediate, burning incentive to toss his red “MAGA” hat into the ring—particularly not as a primary challenger to a sitting Republican president, a feat of audacity that even Ronald Reagan couldn’t pull off in 1976.

In short:  No Obama second term, no Trump.  So I ask again:  Is that a trade you’d be willing to make?

Having ruminated on this for some days, I do not yet have a definitive answer to that question, and I wouldn’t trust any liberal who claims he or she does.  We might agree that Obama was exceptional and Trump is an abomination, but we have yet to fully assimilate how completely—and ironically—the latter is a product of the former:  How, by twice electing President Obama, we were unwittingly planting the seeds of a backlash whose damage will be the work of generations to clean up.

Will it have been worth it in the end?  Is President Trump a fair price to pay for President Obama?  When we look back on this era many decades from now, will we conclude that the benefits of Obama’s administration outweighed the horrors of Trump’s?

At this highly tentative juncture, the answer for many Americans (including this one) is unambiguously “yes.”  As a longtime member of the LGBT club, my life is certainly more promising now than it was four (and eight) years ago—as, I would wager, are the lives of most other social and ethnic minorities whose rights Obama steadfastly defended, along with pretty much anyone who enjoys such amenities as affordable healthcare and breathable air.  Even setting aside the profound historical significance of a black family occupying the White House, the Obama presidency was a truly unique and productive epoch in our history—a veritable golden age of progressive policy initiatives—that every liberal in America should be proud to have voted into existence twice.

Against Obama’s undeniable record of accomplishment—despite the near-comical degree of opposition every step of the way—I have found myself grappling with perhaps the most surprising political revelation of the last four years:

Mitt Romney was not that bad of a guy, and probably wouldn’t have made that bad of a president.

Maybe that sounds crazy, but think about it:  A reasonably successful former governor and businessman.  An intellectual sophisticate with an expansive vocabulary and two Harvard degrees.  A devoted husband and father without a whiff of personal scandal.  And perhaps most essential of all, given the times:  An even-tempered, rational empiricist who does not need a great struggle to see what is directly in front of his nose.

Say what you want about Romney—Lord knows I have—but as president he would not spend an entire week feuding with the wife of a fallen soldier.  He would not sully decades of friendship with key American allies by lambasting them at campaign rallies and on official Oval Office phone calls.  Nor, under any circumstances, would he put in a nice word for Nazis and Klansmen, nor conjure childish nicknames for every senator he doesn’t like and every journalist who asks him a probing question.

He would never do any of those things, because, at the end of the day, Mitt Romney is a well-adjusted adult who believes in liberal democratic norms and understands that the job of the president is to lead—and to lead by example.

To be clear:  I have not forgotten Romney’s many faults, and I still believe my vote for Obama in 2012 was the right one, given what we knew at the time.  I remember Romney’s appalling “faith speech” in 2007, in which he denounced secularism as antithetical to American values, when of course the exact opposite is the case.  I remember when he vowed to double the inmate population at Guantanamo Bay rather than shut the whole rotten place down.  And I certainly remember his knack for reversing virtually every major policy position he’d ever taken—almost always in the wrong direction—thereby feeding the assumption that his thirst for power overwhelmed any notion of honor or personal integrity.

And yet—having said all that—I’ve twice watched Greg Whiteley’s 2014 documentary Mitt, which follows Romney through both of his presidential campaigns, and I’ve twice been taken aback by the sheer whimsy, civility and introspectiveness of this most peculiar American political character.  (“I think I’m a flawed candidate,” he says at one point, surrounded by his entire family.)

What’s more, when it became evident, by late 2015, that Donald Trump posed a clear and present danger to the moral authority of the United States, Romney rose to the occasion like few Republicans have, even to this day.  His speech of March 3, 2016—in which he gingerly called Trump “a phony [and] a fraud” who was “playing the members of the American public for suckers”—remains the most direct, lucid and amusing indictment of the now-president by any major political figure over the last two years.  (Despite Trump’s claims to superior intelligence, Romney quipped, “he is very, very not smart.”)

None of which is to say that a Romney presidency would’ve been a pleasant one for liberals to endure, and of course had he been elected in 2012—thus erasing Trump from the equation—we wouldn’t understand or appreciate how much trouble we’d saved ourselves four years into the future and beyond, what with the space-time continuum operating as it does.

In truth, we are still a long way from comprehending the nature of the beast America uncaged last November 8.  Being so early into Trump’s tenure, we do not yet know precisely how bad things will get—how deep into the barrel this White House is prepared to sink—and how long it’ll take to bind up the nation’s wounds when this nightmare is finally over.

My ongoing hope—somewhat borne out by history—is that the Trump era will be short, aberrational and ultimately washed away by future presidents.  After all, if Trump believes—with some justification—that he can reverse one signature Obama decision after another through executive action, there is little reason to doubt Trump’s Democratic successors can’t—and won’t—reverse all or most of his, particularly once the congressional balance of power shifts back in their favor.

Without question, there will be a lot more pain before we ever reach that point, and it’s probable that some of the rot that Trump’s behavior has wrought upon America’s body politic will prove, like Watergate, to be a permanent blot on the national character and the presidency itself.

Broadly-speaking, there is no silver lining to Donald Trump being president except for the fact that one day he won’t be.  And while humans do not yet possess the ability to go back in time to prevent Category 5 calamities like him, my little Romney thought experiment should serve as a reminder that public servants are not all created equal and that the best way to avoid a terrible presidential candidate in the future is to do everything in one’s power to elect someone else.

Appeasement

What would you do if you met Donald Trump face-to-face?

I realize such an encounter is unlikely for us mere mortals.  As politicians go, Trump is unusually reticent about close interactions with the public and—being a legendary germaphobe—generally avoids all physical human contact whenever possible.

All the same, the Donald is about to become (or should I say “remain”?) the most ubiquitous person on planet Earth, and thus bound to mingle with some of his 320 million constituents every now and again over the next four-to-eight years.

So it’s worth asking ourselves how we would react if he actually came to our hometown and we were given the chance to speak with him one-on-one.  How would we handle him in the flesh, as opposed to when he’s just an image on a screen?

This is no mere rhetorical question.  At this moment, Trump is arguably the most hated man in America.  For at least 50 percent of the country, he is little more than a disgusting, morally bankrupt buffoon who ought to be walled off from all government buildings—and from all small children—and is deserving of neither our attention nor our respect.

And yet, beginning on January 20, he will be the custodian of the most powerful and indispensable office in the Western world.  The presidency of the United States is the centerpiece of the whole American system of government—an institution that transcends the particular characteristics of the person who occupies it at a given moment.  As loyal citizens, we are duty-bound to respect the office itself, and to a certain extent—however much we might abhor it—this requires respecting the officeholder as well.

My sense is that most of us instinctively understand this basic rule of civic etiquette when it comes to the commander-in-chief.  I am reminded of the classic moment in Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon in which one of David Frost’s producers goes on a tirade about how Richard Nixon is a crook and a scumbag, only to shrivel up when he comes nose-to-nose with the man himself—a pricelessly awkward interaction during which he sheepishly grasps Nixon’s hand and mutters, “Mr. President.”

Up to now, that is more or less how civilized people have been expected to behave.  Because the president is a figurehead as well as an individual, he is to be treated with a shade more deference than if he were a private citizen, regardless of whether he deserves it or not.

Should Trump be the exception to the rule?  Should we adopt as official policy the sarcastic internet meme of treating Trump with “the same respect and courtesy as Republicans have afforded President Obama”?  Or, instead, should we take Michelle Obama’s advice and rise above the fray?

I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m with Michelle.  Not because Trump has done anything to earn it (he hasn’t), but simply for the greater good of the country.  Because if we succumb to the temptation to sink to Trump’s level of coarseness and depravity, we will be complicit in the cultural moral decline that, once upon a time, the Republican Party was so deathly concerned about preventing.

As well, if the ethical considerations of behaving decently toward the 45th president aren’t persuasive enough for you, there are practical considerations, too.

Several weeks ago, Trump met with a group of editors and reporters at the New York Times, which led columnist Frank Bruni to posit that the president-elect’s most salient characteristic is his desperate need to be loved.  As we’ve seen from his innumerable campaign rallies, Trump derives virtually all earthly pleasure from other people’s infatuation with him.  Emotionally unbalanced narcissist that he is, he can only be happy when everyone in the room offers their unconditional loyalty and approval.  As soon as one dissident appears, his entire sense of self-worth is threatened and he feels he has no choice but to lash out.  Just ask Alec Baldwin.

The downsides to having a human mood ring for a president are obvious enough.  (See: Russia, puppet of.)  But what about the benefits?

Bruni’s inkling—as he explained in depth to Charlie Rose—is that so long as we play along with Trump’s narcissistic personality disorder—namely, by showering him with a steady stream of adulation and over-the-top flattery—we can make him do pretty much anything we want.  As with so many fragile would-be authoritarians before him, vanity is his kryptonite.  He has become so blinded by self-love within his gilded bubble along Fifth Avenue that whispering sweet nothings into his ear has become the one and only route to his heart and his confidence.  Maybe—just maybe—if we began every policy discussion with some bald-faced appeal to his pride and that precious, precious ego, all his usual defenses would fall and we’d have him eating out of the palm of our hand.

Vladimir Putin was evidently an early adopter of this theory, and seems to have played his hand with gusto—as, for that matter, have several other rogue world leaders who can recognize a useful idiot when they see one.

That Trump apparently isn’t in on the joke—that he doesn’t realize he is being manipulated by every petty dictator on Earth—is, for my money, even more alarming than if it were the other way around.  He is undoubtedly the most gullible person to have won a national election in my lifetime, and the notion that he values personal compliments more than democracy or human rights is a viscerally sickening thought.

The question is:  Are we, his 300-odd million constituents, willing to pull a Mitt Romney by pretending to grovel at his feet in order to win some sort of influence in how the country is run?  As Romney himself learned, just because the Donald buys you dinner doesn’t mean he’s going to take you home for the night.

Accordingly—and in all likelihood—the next four years are a no-win situation for those of us who are not already loyal foot soldiers for America’s führer-in-waiting.  To him, everyone else is merely a means to an end, and therefore completely disposable as soon as their narrow purpose has been served.

If playing nice with him means he listens to you for a few extra seconds, maybe it’s worth sacrificing a piece of your dignity for the greater good of society.  But don’t delude yourself into thinking you won’t pay for it in the end.  As the West memorably learned in 1938, once you offer a dictator half of Czechoslovakia, it’s only a matter of time before he comes marching back in pursuit of all of Western Europe.

How to Lose an Election

They say you learn more from defeat than from victory.  Now that Donald Trump is (probably) about to lose the biggest, loudest contest of his life—and has insinuated that he won’t accept unfavorable results—I would recommend two recent documentaries that show, respectively, how losing should and should not be done.

The movies are Mitt and Weiner.  Released just two years apart (both debuted at Sundance, funnily enough), they offer a splendid study in contrasts about how candidates for high office navigate the indignities and insanities of 21st century campaigning:  How they handle setbacks, how they react to criticism—fair and unfair—and, ultimately, how they reconcile their high opinions of themselves with total rejection by the American electorate.

Mitt, directed by Greg Whiteley and released in 2014, is a behind-the-scenes look at six years in the life of Mitt Romney, from the earliest days of the 2008 Republican primaries (Romney, you’ll recall, came in second to John McCain) all the way to Election Night 2012, when he lost the presidency to Barack Obama.

The first time I saw Whiteley’s film, I wrote about how much more engaging, likable and—God help us—authentic Romney turned out to be when he wasn’t surrounded by the hound dogs in the press.  How soberly—and accurately—he was able to identify and assess his own electoral weaknesses, even in the most high-pitched moments of both campaigns.  How, in the end, those very shortcomings—the stiffness, the flip-flopping, the “47 percent” video—prevented America from noticing the wholly decent and eminently qualified candidate who resided underneath.

Watching Mitt again recently—this time in the age of Trump—I found myself admiring this version of Mitt Romney even more than I did the first time.  Apart from the billions of other ways Romney is preferable to Donald Trump—both as a politician and a human being—in Mitt he presents as a man responding to adversity and disappointment about as well as someone in his position possibly could.  No matter how bad things get—say, when he loses the New Hampshire primary to John McCain in 2008, or when Obama gets the better of him in their second debate in 2012—he always seems to grasp exactly what the problem is and how he might—or might not—be able to fix it.

In other words, Romney never succumbs to self-pity, never throws a tantrum, never blames his troubles on everyone else, never loses touch with reality.  For all the cockeyed optimism he projects both on and offstage, at heart he is a steely-eyed realist whose sense of optics and the public mood are sharper, perhaps, than that of anyone else in his inner circle—including the members of his large and fiercely loyal family.

As the rest of his posse whines about the unfairness of it all—asking, incredulously, how voters could possibly prefer President Obama to him—Mitt retains the wherewithal and discipline to look inward—to understand why he is struggling and, in time, to recognize a lost cause when he sees one.  On Election Night—as the numbers trickle in and it becomes clear the evening is not going his way—he maintains a sad, stubborn smile, resolute that, through months of hard campaigning, he has arrived at some sort of inner peace.

Now consider Weiner, the doc from earlier this year by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, which follows Anthony Weiner through his ill-conceived, disastrous campaign for mayor of New York in the summer of 2013.

Weiner, as you know, is the feisty former congressman from Brooklyn who was forced to resign his House seat in 2011, after it was revealed he had texted pictures of…himself…to a series of strange young women.  From the shame and disgrace of that sordid affair, he decided the next logical step was to become chief executive of the largest city in the United States—a contest he would lose by a comically huge margin (he finished in fifth place, with 5 percent of the vote), hindered, in part, by a brand new sexting story that hit newsstands at the worst possible moment.

Like Romney with his project, Weiner allowed the crew of Weiner to follow him around everywhere—through the good times and the bad—and the most salient impression we get is that Anthony Weiner is possibly the only man in America more narcissistic than Donald Trump.

At no point in this film does Weiner consider the well-being of anyone but himself; at no point does he feel particularly responsible for the misfortunes that seem to follow him everywhere he goes; at no point does he understand how ridiculous his multiple sexting scandals have made him look, even to his own supporters; and at no point does he ponder whether running for mayor—or anything else, for that matter—was an act of pure hubris—and, as it turned out, the beginning of the end of his marriage.  (His wife, Huma Abedin, announced their separation earlier this year, following yet another round of sexting with yet another random lady.)

This is not to say that, during this ordeal, Weiner is entirely without self-awareness or introspection.  In fact, the filmmakers frequently cross-examine their subject about the wisdom of his many puzzling life decisions, and he does occasionally attempt to ascertain what might be going on in his brain.

All the same, Weiner’s quest is fundamentally a lonely and selfish one—a way to prove and redeem himself after an embarrassing and tawdry fall from grace (not that he was ever particularly graceful in the first place)—and his response to repeated humiliations is to step right back into the flogging machine that the press is all-too-willing to fire up.

Witness, for instance, his confrontation in a Jewish bakery with a customer who berates him for his immature behavior—a charge Weiner rebuts by (you guessed it!) behaving immaturely.  Seeing Weiner take the bait and escalate the situation into a pointless shouting match—later breathlessly reported on the evening news, naturally—we cannot help but agree with a smirking bystander who turns to the camera and says, “He could’ve just walked away.”

But Anthony Weiner is not the sort of person who can just walk away from anything.  He is too proud, too petulant—too insecure in his own skin—to let even the mildest criticism slide.  He is a political street fighter who can trash talk others until the cows come home but turns into a sputtering nincompoop whenever the insults ricochet back in his direction.

Remind you of anyone else we know?

If Donald Trump insists on losing the 2016 presidential election—surely, no one can still believe he’s trying to win—and if he wants America to extend even a modicum of respect for how he does so, Mitt Romney’s is the ideal model for him to emulate:  Calm, cool, collected and classy.

It is to Romney’s credit—as a candidate and a person—that Trump can’t even pretend to exhibit the graciousness in defeat that Romney essayed so well in 2012, both in public and in private.  While there is still time for Trump to completely transform his personality and accept his personal failings like a man, the smart money remains where it has always been:  As far as political temperaments go, Donald Trump is nothing more than a giant stinking Weiner.