The Limits of Loyalty

Is loyalty a virtue or a sin?  Does the world need more of it, or less?

Donald Trump, in a controversial speech to the Boy Scouts of America on Monday, endorsed the former in no uncertain terms, rambling to the gathering of thousands of teenage boys, “As the Scout Law says, ‘A scout is trustworthy, loyal’—we could use some more loyalty, I will tell you that.”

The subtext of this remark was clear enough to anyone paying attention to current events.  Throughout the past week, the president has been very publicly steaming about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump feels betrayed him by recusing himself from the administration’s Russia imbroglio—and also, apparently, by not investigating Hillary Clinton for God knows what.  In an ongoing series of tweets, Trump has tarred Sessions as “beleaguered” and “VERY weak,” effectively goading him into resigning, lest the abuse continue indefinitely.

The implication—or explication, as the case may be—is that Sessions’s duty as America’s chief law enforcement officer is to protect Donald Trump from the law, not to defend the law against those who violate it, up to and including the commander-in-chief himself.  As Trump made plain in an interview with the New York Times, his hiring of Sessions was predicated on the AG serving the president—not the Constitution.

But then it’s not only Sessions who has found himself the object of Trump’s wrath on the question of absolute allegiance.  Let’s not forget James Comey, the former director of the FBI, who famously met with the president in January, when the latter said, point-blank, “I need loyalty; I expect loyalty.”  Comey’s eventual sacking—like Sessions’s, should it occur—was the result of being insufficiently faithful to the man in the Oval Office.  Of daring to think, and act, for himself.

As someone who has never been leader of the free world—nor, for that matter, held any position of real responsibility—I must confess that I remain skeptical about the value of unconditional submission in one’s day-to-day life and generally regard free agency as the far superior of the two virtues.  Indeed, I would argue (to answer my own question) that “virtue” might be altogether the wrong word to use in this context.

When thinking about loyalty, the question you must ask yourself is:  What, exactly, am I being loyal to?  Is it to a set of principles, or to another human being?  And if you are merely dedicating yourself to a person, what has he or she done to deserve it, and what, if anything, will you be getting in return?

Certainly, the spectacle of Trump demanding total fealty to Trump is the most extreme—and most cartoonish—manifestation of this latter category, since the president has shown minimal interest in reciprocating whatever devotion happens to come his way.  Except with members of his immediate family (so far, anyway), Trump’s modus operandi is to ask for everything and give nothing back.  Part and parcel of being a textbook sociopath, Trump views his fellow humans purely as a means to an end and rarely, if ever, stops to think how he might make their lives easier in the process.  It does not occur to him to treat people with respect for its own sake.  If anything, he views empathy as a sign of weakness.

This behavior may well represent an abuse and perversion of an otherwise useful human trait, but that hardly makes a difference when considering the enormous political power of the man doing the perverting.

Which brings us—by way of analogy—to Adolf Hitler.

In Germany, beginning in 1934, all members of the armed forces were required to swear a solemn oath—not to Germany, mind you, but to the man at the top.  This vow, or Reichswehreid, read, in part, “To the Leader of the German Empire and people, Adolf Hitler, supreme commander of the armed forces, I shall render unconditional obedience and […] at all times be prepared to give my life for this oath.”  As you might’ve guessed, soldiers who refused to comply tended not to live very long.

If that seems like an extreme and sui generis example of a personality cult run amok, let me remind you of the moment in March 2016 when, at a campaign rally in Florida, Donald Trump implored his adoring crowd to raise their right hands and pledge, “I do solemnly swear that I—no matter how I feel, no matter what the conditions, if there’s hurricanes or whatever—will vote […] for Donald J. Trump for president.”

While a stunt like that doesn’t exactly sink to the depths of the Hitler oath—Trump wasn’t about to jail or murder anyone who opted out—it is nonetheless a profoundly creepy thing for a presidential candidate in a democratic republic to say—particularly when you recall that Trump once reportedly kept an anthology of Hitler’s speeches at his bedside table.  This for a man who can otherwise go years without reading a single book.

That Trump evidently views Hitler as some sort of role model—and is haphazardly aping the Führer’s stylistic flourishes on the campaign trail—ought to give us serious pause about where his own fidelity lies—is it to the nation or himself?—and about whether his pronouncement at the Republican National Convention that he—and he alone—is capable of steering America forward was less an expression of supreme confidence than a barely-veiled threat against those who doubt that a serially-bankrupt con artist is the best man to preside over the largest economy in the world.

The problem, you see, is not that Trump is Hitler.  (He’s not.)  The problem is that he wants to be Hitler—and Mussolini and Saddam Hussein and Vladimir Putin and every other national figurehead who has managed to wield near-absolute authority over his citizenry—often with sarcastically high approval ratings and totally unburdened by the institutional checks and balances that America’s founders so brilliantly installed in 1787.

While Trump’s ultimate ambitions might not be as violent or imperial as those of the men I just listed—in the end, he seems to care about little beyond self-enrichment—the central lesson of the first six months of his administration—plus the first 71 years of his life—is that there is nothing he will not try to get away with at least once.  No sacred cow he will not trample.  No rule he will not bend.  No sin he will not commit.  He is a man of bottomless appetites and zero restraint.  Left to his own devices, he would spend his entire presidency arranging meetings—like the one with his cabinet last month—whose participants did nothing but praise him for being the greatest man in the history of the world.  A Kim Jong-un of the West.

Remember:  The sole reason Trump hasn’t already turned the United States into a full-blown banana republic is that he can’t.  Constitutionally-speaking, the only things stopping him from indulging his basest instincts are Congress, the courts and the American public, and we’ve seen how tenuous all three of those institutions can be.  Should the remaining branches of government fulfill their obligations as a check on executive overreach and malfeasance, we’ll be fine.  Should they falter—thereby providing Trump the untrammeled loyalty he demands—we’ll be in for the longest eight years of our lives.

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.

The Beautiful Struggle

In a year of ugliness, hatred, division and dread, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight arrives as a bulwark of beauty, love, compassion and hope.  Following a presidential election in which the forces of deceit and bigotry prevailed—calling our whole national creed into question—here is a movie about a boy (and, in time, a man) who struggles against those very same forces to understand his own identity in a universe that seems determined to make him someone else.

Truly, there has been very little in 2016 to assure us there is any beauty left in the world.  At my family’s Thanksgiving dinner—an affair that was largely (and blessedly) politics-free—we agreed that, through the darkness of the next four years, a great deal of light is likely to come from artists—a community of eccentrics with the boldness and optimism to create outsize the box, allowing us to escape our narrow window of existence and be exposed to different points of view.

Great art doesn’t always make us feel better—often, by design, it makes us feel worse—but it does expand the parameters of what it means to be fully human.  Outside of religion and science, it is our only mechanism for achieving transcendence.

Moonlight is great art, which is a rarity even among great films.  In his New York Times review, A.O. Scott wrote, “From first shot to last, ‘Moonlight’ is about as beautiful a movie as you are ever likely to see.”  I’ve now seen it twice, and Scott was not exaggerating.  You could play Moonlight with the sound turned off and still be unable to look away.  Indeed, you could print and frame dozens of randomly-selected screenshots and wind up with the most galvanizing photography show in New York.  Setting aside plot and character, Jenkins’s movie is an aesthetic triumph—a marvel of visual virtuosity.

Yet, in the end, you can’t separate the film’s beauty from its subject matter any more than you can separate the beauty of “Imagine” from John Lennon’s fantasies of socialism and world peace.  To experience Moonlight—specifically, the travails of its young hero, Chiron—is to be elevated to a level of consciousness about other people’s lives that only movies can attain.  Roger Ebert famously described the cinema as “like a machine that generates empathy,” and it has been quite some time since a film has lived up to that lofty ambition as deeply and as movingly as this one.

How so?  First, by adhering to the No. 1 rule of storytelling:  “Show, don’t tell.”  Second, by showing us exactly what we need to see, and nothing more.  And third, by providing us a leading man whose existence is at once unfathomably complex and wholly, tragically comprehensible.

For point of reference, consider Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which followed its protagonist, Mason, from age 6 through the end of high school.  By the end of that journey, we felt more or less like we knew everything about Mason, even as we conceded that a great deal of the movie consisted of fairly mundane events—going to a ballgame, getting a haircut, etc.

The audacity of Boyhood was its very conceit:  It was filmed piece-by-piece over a period of 12 years, so that the actors aged in concert with their fictional counterparts.  Arguably the film’s greatest flaw—although many considered it a strength—was the relative ordinariness of Mason himself, a middle class heterosexual white man whose cumulative coming of age was more compelling than any particular moment along the way.  Mason wasn’t exactly the poster child of white privilege, but nor was he particularly deprived, as far as American childhoods go.

Not so with Chiron (pronounced “shy-RONE”), the centerpiece of Moonlight, who through a series of genetic accidents begins life as everything that Mason is not.  Born and raised in a depressed, heavily African-American section of Miami known as Liberty City, Chiron is a diminutive, moody, soft-spoken outcast with no siblings, no father and a mother largely dependent on the friendly neighborhood crack dealer.  To complicate things, that very same kingpin, Juan (Mahershala Ali), takes a liking to Chiron and, with his wife Teresa (Janelle Monáe), becomes his de facto guardian angel.  By the end of the movie’s first act, it falls to Juan to confront Chiron’s unexpectedly pointed question, “Am I a faggot?”

The answer is yes (in a manner of speaking), and the implications of this realization—namely, that he is young, black and gay in a cultural milieu that cannot abide all three at once—sows the seeds of doom for the remainder of Chiron’s adolescence.

I shan’t say anything further on the details of that painful sexual awakening, other than to note how—as with Boyhood, in its way—the details are everything.  How extreme tenderness in one moment leads, inexorably, to extreme cruelty in the next.  How one wrong word, look or impression—propelled by centuries of repression, prejudice and fear—can irreparably alter the course of a person’s life, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

However, sometimes there is.  If the first two-thirds of Moonlight are a slow-burning human tragedy about the price and meaning of black masculinity in 21st century America, the final act suggests that if you manage to survive the crucible of your teenage years, there’s an outside chance you can begin life anew with whatever scraps are left over.

This is not to say that Moonlight is principally a film about hope, or about the inherent moral rightness of the universe.  There is much more to a fulfilling life than simply not getting shot or overdosing on cocaine.  No one with an upbringing like Chiron’s would (or should) ever consider himself lucky—and certainly not grateful for whatever Valuable Life Lessons those hardships might’ve imparted.

Barry Jenkins, the director, is not about to let us off that easy:  Along with his co-creator, Tarell Alvin McCraney (Jenkins adapted the screenplay from McCraney’s original stage play), he understands that a hard life is undesirable on every level, and Moonlight is finally about the struggle that awaits every gay black man who dares to carry himself with honesty, dignity and pride—and, most of all, the awareness that mortal peril exists on both sides of the closet door.

It is to the credit of everyone involved that such an ugly ordeal has been made into one of the most achingly gorgeous movies of our time.  In this political moment—as we find ourselves staring into the abyss in search of the tiniest shred of humanity to get us through the next thousand-odd days of America life—Moonlight provides cinema’s first answer to how the darkness might be endured, and it’s the same answer W.H. Auden gave in 1939, on the eve of another global cataclysm:  “We must love one another or die.”

Crawl Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then again, perhaps not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Losers

Quick question:  Will a Republican ever be elected president again?

I don’t mean to be flippant in asking.  I’m completely serious, although, as a liberal, I can’t pretend to despair at the prospect that the answer might be “no.”

Historically speaking, the odds of such a thing are just a hair north of zero.  Indeed, if the past several generations of elections have taught us anything, it’s that American voters can stand one party in the White House for only so long before swinging the other way and throwing the bums out.

In the last 63 years—that is, since the election of 1952—only once has the same party won three presidential elections in a row—namely, two by Ronald Reagan and one by George H.W. Bush.  On all other occasions, the executive branch has seen a transfer of power from one party to the other within either four or eight years.

Fundamentally, the country is split down the middle when it comes to political ideology, with the small group of folks in the middle ultimately determining which way the wind blows.  The last seven elections have been won by a margin of less than 10 percent, which is rather remarkable when you consider that five of the preceding nine were won by more than 10 percent.

So it stands to reason that—if only to satisfy statistical norms—a Republican will, in fact, win the presidency in 2016 or, at the absolute latest, 2020.

That’s before factoring in the legacy and current standing of the man whom our next president will succeed.  From a composite of recent polls, President Obama’s approval rating sits at 44 percent.  While by no means catastrophic—George W. Bush ended his presidency at 34 percent—it’s not exactly reassuring to a Democratic Party that might otherwise want to capitalize on Obama’s successes in anointing his heir apparent.

If Obama’s current levels of (un)popularity hold, he would be in roughly the same shape as George H.W. Bush, who couldn’t save himself in 1992, and in considerably worse shape than Bill Clinton, who was at 60 percent on Election Day 2000 and still couldn’t save Al Gore.

As if that weren’t bad enough, there was the media’s reminder earlier this month that, for all the Democrats’ dominance on the national level, the Obama era has seen sweeping victories for Republican candidates on the state and local levels.  There are ten more Republican governors today than in 2009 and, as reported in the New York Times, “Democratic losses in state legislatures under Mr. Obama rank among the worst in the last 115 years, with 816 Democratic lawmakers losing their jobs and Republican control of legislatures doubling since the president took office.”

In short, the 2016 race is the GOP’s to lose.  But they’re going to lose it, anyway.

Why?  Because Republican voters are determined to do so.

You don’t need me to tell you which GOP candidate is currently—and enduringly—ahead in the national polls.  Nor, for that matter, do I need to explain why this is such a spectacular moral farce.

However, in light of how close the Iowa caucuses have become and how little the polls have changed over the last several months, it is entirely worth spelling out this travesty in full, just in case the full force of it hasn’t yet sunk in.

Lest we forget that, for all his popularity with GOP voters, Donald Trump remains the man who ridiculed John McCain for having been a prisoner of war.  The man who said a Black Lives Matter activist deserved to be “roughed up” at one of his campaign rallies and that a pair of supporters who assaulted a Hispanic homeless man were “very passionate” people who “love this country.”  The man who is so hilariously thin-skinned that he picks (and loses) Twitter fights with people whom most Americans haven’t even heard of—including, most recently, a reporter whose physical disability Trump gleefully mocked onstage.

It has gotten people asking:  Is there anyone left in America whom Trump has not tacitly (if not personally) offended?

Apparently there is, because (at the risk of repeating ourselves) he remains the top dog among his party’s base, with his numbers consistently in the mid-to-upper 20s in a 14-person contest.  Much can still happen before Iowa and New Hampshire (to be held on February 1 and 9, respectively), but for now GOP voters have made their views clear, and the rest of us have no choice but to acknowledge it.

Once we’ve done that, however, we can proceed directly to the next self-evident truth, which is that Donald Trump will never, ever, ever in a billion years be elected president of the United States.

It’s not just that he’d barely get a single vote from Hispanics, whom he has tarred—directly or by association—as rapists and drug dealers.  Or that he’d garner zero interest from African-Americans, whom he affectionately refers to as “the blacks.”

Nope, in the end, his downfall may well come at the hands of the whites.

Should he secure his party’s nomination—following a demolition derby of a primary season, no doubt—he will discover that there is a good chunk of moderate, independent white voters who, despite conservative or libertarian worldviews, just cannot bring themselves to support a man who behaves like a real housewife of Beverly Hills.  Who is so emotionally unstable that he throws a spontaneous fit whenever anyone says anything unflattering about him, and so intellectually insecure that he name-drops his alma mater almost as frequently as his net worth.

For all their fickleness and inscrutability, American voters are cognizant of the image they project to the world when they elect a commander-in-chief.  While we are certainly susceptible to leaders who project strength through swagger and machismo (see Bush, George W., 2004), we are not so weak and panicky that we will surrender the Oval Office to a fellow who would enshrine religious and ethnic discrimination (back) into law.  We don’t mind sacrificing some of our privacy in the interest of fighting terrorism, but we aren’t prepared to sacrifice all of it.  We appreciate a chief executive who indulges in social media, but not necessarily at 4 o’clock in the morning.

We could go on and on about what a child Donald Trump truly is, but that would unfairly let the rest of the GOP off the hook.  As anyone paying attention to national politics knows, Trump is not the only “serious” candidate with a knack for behaving like a petulant toddler.  On Friday, for instance, the New York Times ran an amusing story chronicling the off-the-charts use of profanity by candidates throughout the campaign season, noting that employing four-letter words is perhaps the most promising way to draw attention to oneself and hopefully experience a bump in the polls.

Is there anything more pathetic than that, let alone more childish or un-presidential?

More broadly, the GOP in Washington shows no particular interest in shaking its reputation for obstructing every last Obama proposal for no reason except that Obama proposed it.  As the recent struggle to find a new House speaker demonstrated, Republicans in Congress have long since transitioned from a governing body into a gang of hyperactive, nihilistic know-nothings whose ambitions are limited to negating every major piece of legislation the previous few Congresses have passed, while spending the rest of the time calling each other names and screaming about the end of the world.

With a legislative branch like that, are we really on the verge of anointing an executive branch that’s on the exact same page?  To paraphrase Trump, how stupid are we?

The silver lining here—for Republicans and the country alike—is the theory that primary voters will eventually come to their senses and nominate one of the alleged grownups in the field—someone like Marco Rubio or John Kasich, whose experience and relative sanity could plausibly give Hillary Clinton a run for her money.  Trump supporters are, after all, a slim majority of all eligible voters and would be hugely outnumbered if only Trump non-supporters could reach a consensus as to which non-Trump candidate they prefer.

It could happen.  The 2016 general election may well end up as a variation of 2012, with two flawed but serious contenders who both see the world more or less as it actually is.  It’s not too late.

But if that doesn’t happen—if the GOP goes insane and nominates someone who is manifestly unacceptable to 55-60 percent of the country—then the next four years will probably look an awful lot like the last eight, featuring an ideological civil war within the party, during which its two major factions will debate, yet again, about whether the GOP should retain its extremist Tea Party bent and remain ideologically “pure,” or whether it should entertain such heretical concepts as moderation and compromise, which might include recognition of climate change, same-sex marriage and the consequences of white supremacy and lax gun control laws.

Shortly after Obama was first inaugurated, blogger Andrew Sullivan predicted that, with respect to the GOP, “It will get worse before it gets better.”  The past six-and-a-half years have certainly vindicated that assessment, although we are still waiting for an answer to the natural follow up:  Will it ever get better, or will the party ultimately disband and start over again from scratch?  It’s a crazy, outlandish scenario—one that hasn’t happened to a major political party since the death of the Whigs in 1856—but we may well have found the crazy, outlandish goons with the power to make it happen.

Ducking Donald

I hope Donald Trump runs for president forever.

He has proved an indispensable component of the 2016 GOP primary race, and he needs to stick around so his singular contributions can continue.

At this point in Trump’s quixotic quest for the Oval Office, most Americans have come to regard him as the worthless piece of excrement he has always been—the shameless blowhard with a comical lack of self-awareness and the emotional maturity of an infant.

Fair enough, but this assumption all-too-casually overlooks the role he has swiftly and boldly assumed amid the dizzying Republican fracas that has been puttering around the early primary states these last several months.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently proclaimed Trump “exactly what the Republican Party deserves.”  But he is also—for some of the same reasons—the candidate the GOP needs.

In an environment of chaos, Donald Trump is the great clarifier.  He is a big, fat Republican ink blot that allows us to see exactly where everyone stands—how each of his co-candidates truly feels about the issues he is all-too-willing to broach.

Let us begin at the beginning.  In announcing his candidacy for president, Trump (in)famously tarred the entire Mexican immigrant population as murderous, drug-smuggling rapists.  (He then charitably added, “Some, I assume, are good people.”)

OK, then.  This is the kind of mindless xenophobia the GOP has espoused for years, albeit previously in a more restrained and respectful manner.  But now that Trump, lacking the capacity for restraint or respect, has taken the liberty of getting right to the point, we are able to see—more clearly than we otherwise would—how every other candidate views the immigration question writ large.

Generally speaking, when a public figure asserts—without evidence—that the majority of immigrants from a friendly, neighboring country are effectively the scum of the Earth, the correct response is either to ignore that person entirely or to call him out for his ignorance.

After some prodding, a handful of Trump’s competitors did exactly that.  Former Florida governor Jeb Bush called the comments “extraordinarily ugly” and Trump “wrong” to make them.  Florida senator Marco Rubio characterized the rant as “offensive,” “inaccurate” and “divisive.”  South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham called it “hurtful and not helpful.”

However, an equal number of declared candidates have opted for Door No. 3:  Tacitly agree with the premise of Trump’s blather.  Texas senator Ted Cruz took the opportunity to croon about how much he admires Trump as a person, as did New Jersey governor Chris Christie.  While Christie responded that he was “not personally offended” by the ramblings in question, Cruz went so far as to “salute” Trump for “focusing on the need to address illegal immigration”—a sentiment echoed almost word-for-word by former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum.

In other words:  Never mind the fact that Mexican immigrants aren’t all dangerous criminals coming to prey on our women.  The point is that illegal immigration is important to talk about, so why quibble over the details?

It’s an appalling way to think, not to mention lazy and dishonest.  It would be like Bernie Sanders asserting that investment bankers were forming gangs and ripping off liquor stores, followed by Hillary Clinton defending him by saying, “The important thing is that he has addressed the need to exercise greater oversight of the big banks.”

But I digress.  The point, in any case, is that Republican primary voters are much more informed about what’s going on in the heads of their ballot choices, and all because Donald Trump said something ridiculous.  Indeed, I know more than a few registered voters for whom the sentence, “I like Donald; he’s a good guy” is all the information they need about whether to ever vote for Chris Christie.

If this long, long pre-primaries period of presidential preening serves any purpose at all, it’s to allow us to cross-examine our commander-in-chief wannabees in a more freewheeling environment than in the tense, over-scripted final leg.  While there are billions of opportunities during this time for anybody to ask any candidate anything—some of which make the evening news or go viral on YouTube—there is an added power to moments (not least the debates) when a party’s banner-carriers are confronted directly and simultaneously by the logic (or illogic) of their core policies.

So long as Trump remains in the race—and why on Earth wouldn’t he?—we will see this happen over and over again.  The man himself is in no immediate danger of suddenly learning basic table manners, and our infantile media are more than happy to indulge him.  Then there’s the matter of the opinion polls, in which he currently ranks in the top two.

Which means the Donald will continue to be the yardstick against which all the other candidates are forced to measure themselves with respect to their party’s identity.  Elections are in large part a test of character, and Trump—a character in his own right—may prove the most grueling test of all.  If his insane ideas about immigration—and, more recently, about what it means to be a war hero—demonstrate real staying power among GOP primary voters, what do the remaining competitors have to gain by condemning such ideas as the lunacy that they are?

Their integrity, for one.  Indeed, many voters have a soft spot for basic human decency in the heat of a high-stakes election.  We’re certainly not gonna get any from Trump, but he may well inspire it in others.  As has been so richly demonstrated in light of his maligning of Senator John McCain, it is not terribly difficult to assume the moral high ground when the maestro of the “Miss Universe” show is the only other man in the room.

His more even-tempered counterparts would do well to mine the anti-Trump vote for all it’s worth, as it is certain to be worth plenty.  After all, a man can only insult and belittle so many of his fellow Americans before there aren’t any left to vote for him.

Here is one Republican billionaire today’s candidates can afford to give a pass.

A Boy’s Life

Every great movie is a little different each time you watch it.  If there is any clear divide between good cinema and bad cinema, it’s that the former contains depth and subtlety that the latter lacks—much of which remains hidden until you’ve digested it many times over.

Watching Boyhood for, let’s say, the fifth time was, for me, distinguishable from the fourth for a very particular reason:  I was, for the first time, viewing it in the presence of an actual boy.

Over the weekend, Richard Linklater’s 2014 film debuted on cable TV, right around the time a big family get-together of ours was winding down.  A handful of us tuned in, many for the first time.  Among these was my 13-year-old cousin, who was skeptical about why a director would take 12 years to make a single movie, let alone why anyone would watch it—especially with its nearly three-hour running time.  (No doubt many grown-ups feel this way, too.)

Then the movie got underway, and he grew mildly engaged—not least by the friction between Mason, the protagonist, and his slightly older sister, Samantha.  (He has a sister, too.)

As Boyhood approached its halfway point and Mason’s age aligned with my cousin’s—leading to such vignettes as getting verbally accosted by schoolyard bullies and discovering the wonders and mysteries of women—he sat up in his chair and remarked, “That’s exactly how it is!”

I don’t think Linklater could’ve asked for higher praise than that.

If Boyhood is about anything, it is all the little joys and horrors of being a kid from first to twelfth grade in today’s America, particularly if you’re a guy.  Naturally, this makes those within that age range the movie’s target audience—or, at the very least, the people who can best judge whether what it portrays rings true.

As a 20-something American male, my own adolescence played out only a few years removed from the movie’s time frame.  And so I have felt reasonably confident, up until now, that Boyhood is as accurate and insightful as most people say, hence its magnetic effect on my psyche.

But memory is unreliable, and there are innumerable films about childhood that reflect their directors’ assumptions about the experience that, in fact, are either romanticized or traumatized beyond any sense of realism.  (Sometimes this is deliberate, but often not.)

Now I know, much more confidently than before, that Linklater nailed it.  I know because someone with much more authority on the subject than I has said so.

That means a lot to me, because it helps to calm one of my greatest cinematic fears:  That my deepest and most memorable film-going experiences somehow weren’t real.  That they were manipulated, mistaken or emotionally fraudulent.  That it was all in my head.

This fear is especially acute when it involves movies that are universally acclaimed, heaped with critical praise bordering on hysterical.  Boyhood is a classic example, with Manohla Dargis in the New York Times calling it “profound” and a “masterpiece”—terms used very sparingly in the paper of record—with the Times’ other film critic, A.O. Scott, writing, “In my 15 years of professional movie reviewing, I can’t think of any film that has affected me the way Boyhood did.”

I know how he feels, but it can be dangerous to employ such gushing appraisals about works of art, since they inevitably raise viewers’ expectations to impossible levels, leading to an equally-inevitable backlash featuring contrarian critiques and the barking of words like “overrated.”  While there hasn’t yet been a ton of this with Boyhood, there has been just enough to make me nervous.

To be clear:  I don’t fear opposing views about my favorite movies.  I only fear persuasive ones.  I fear that someone will point out some fundamental flaw that I hadn’t noticed before and that I won’t be able to shake it when I see the movie again.

In general, I know better than to read things that will do nothing but upset me, and I am endlessly thankful that the overwhelming majority of Internet-based analysis is complete rubbish and not worth anyone’s time.

But then there are folks like Ross Douthat, who recently posted a New York Times blog entry titled, “The Trouble With ‘Boyhood.’”  Although Douthat is best-known as a Times op-ed columnist, he also reviews movies for National Review and, more to the point, is one of the most thoughtful and intellectually honest writers in the biz.  So when he is compelled to puncture the idea that Boyhood is perfect, I can’t just dismiss it.

As it happens, I did not ultimately find his gripes about the movie compelling.  I understand how he reached the conclusions he did, but my recent re-viewing rendered his critiques immaterial.  For instance, he says (and quotes others as saying) that by the end, Mason does not appear sufficiently affected by the various family dysfunctions in his upbringing, and that there is not nearly enough drama and conflict to get us across the finish line.

In one sense, Douthat and his co-contrarians are right:  Overall, Boyhood does not examine the long-term consequences of divorce and other familial unrest on children as thoroughly as it might have.  Nor is Mason himself an exceptionally assertive or colorful character, and he has a definite knack for deflecting would-be hardships instead of absorbing them head-on and having to nurse the resulting emotional wounds.

On the other hand, what does that have to do with anything?

Life only happens once, and we all handle it differently.  If Mason emerges from an adolescence of constant domestic turbulence with a general air of serenity, maybe it’s because that’s just the kind of person he is.  On what basis should we expect him to act any other way?  If the years of fighting and bitterness between his estranged parents give way to comity and near-reconciliation, perhaps it just demonstrates that adults, like their kids, are sometimes capable of change and personal growth.

It’s absolutely true that the players in Boyhood do not follow the conventions of similar characters in other films, nor does the film itself adhere to anything resembling a traditional plot.

Who ever said that it should?  I don’t know about you, but I prefer movies that approach their subjects differently than movies that came before.  If I wanted to watch the same thing over and over again, I would watch the same thing over and over again.

Indeed, that’s what I seem to be doing lately with Linklater’s little experiment.  Not only do I find it so very different from everything else that’s turning up in movie houses today, but also—if I may end where I began—a novel experience from one viewing to the next.  As Mason grows from a six-year-old into a college freshman, so does the movie itself assume a more confident and fully-formed identity.

I can’t explain this.  (Nor do I care to.)  All I know is that I’m still very much in the rapturous, love-at-first-sight stage in my relationship with this movie.  And like all such relationships, it contains a modicum of stone-cold dread for the moment when it all comes crashing down to Earth and I find out that Boyhood is not the greatest thing since gluten-free bread after all.

That’s the trouble with love:  It’s completely irrational, and therefore fragile—especially when reason suddenly enters into it.

I would love to think that my visceral adulation of great films is impervious to logic and to the criticisms of others.  But I am a logical being, too, and cannot depend on sheer faith to ensure that such adoration burns brightly forever.

That’s what makes it so heartening to find other people who feel that burn, too.  Or simply, in this case, someone who sees a portrayal of a young boy’s life and says, yup, that’s how it is.