We Will Survive

Given the choice, which of the following would be the more unnerving prospect:  That Donald Trump becomes president and effectively destroys the entire world order, or that Trump becomes president and does a perfectly decent job?

Over the past year, we Trump skeptics have spent so much time imagining the catastrophic consequences of a theoretical Trump presidency that it has barely crossed our minds that he just might be up to the task—or, more precisely, that our fears of what his leadership style would mean for the future have been unduly exaggerated.  That upon becoming the most powerful person on Earth, Trump might finally come to his senses and behave in a more cautious, dignified manner on the world stage.

Admittedly, the reason none of us has entertained this notion is that everything Trump has ever said and done has indicated the exact opposite.  Whether through his infantile personality, his lack of basic knowledge about policy or his propensity for flying into a tizzy whenever anyone calls him out—especially if that person is a woman—Trump has made it impossible for any reasonable observer to give him the benefit of the doubt:  The preponderance of the evidence suggests a disaster in the making.

But what if we’re wrong?  What if Trump surprises us by proving himself a competent, solid leader who manages America’s foreign and domestic affairs with grace, fortitude and good humor?  What if he lays aside his rougher edges and characteristic bile and somehow wills himself into an able statesman?

Or—if that scenario seems too outlandish—suppose he abandons some of his baser instincts in the Oval Office and muddles through four years of minor accomplishments and periodic setbacks, amounting to a presidency that, while hardly great, is finally regarded as a respectable effort and a mere blip in the ongoing saga of republican governance?

Indeed, the prospect of a boring, so-so performance from this man seems to be the one eventuality that both Trump’s fans and haters neither want nor expect—perhaps because it simply doesn’t compute that such an explosive character could possibly be middling.  In the hysterical environment in which we live, today’s electorate is convinced that a President Trump would be either a towering success or a catastrophic failure.  (We should add that, given the differing values of these two camps, it’s possible that, four years hence, both will claim to have been correct.)

And yet, if history teaches us anything, it’s that the U.S. presidency is a fundamentally stable and moderating institution—strong enough to endure even the likes of one Donald Trump.

Taking a cursory view of all U.S. presidents to date, we find that a small handful were truly great, an equally small handful were truly terrible, while the remaining several dozen landed in the giant chasm in between.

What we find in all cases, however, is that not a single one of those 43 men has caused the American republic to collapse or the entire planet to explode—i.e. the two things that half the country more or less assumes will happen under a President Trump.

Whether the presiding administration engaged in open bribery (e.g. Grant and Harding), imperial overreach (Johnson and Bush), nuclear hot potato (Truman and Kennedy) or domestic genocide (Andrew effing Jackson), the country itself managed to endure—both while and after such dangerous men stood at the helm.  To date, no chief executive (try as they might) has succeeded in fully negating the principles of the Constitution.

(For our purposes, we’ll allow that the Civil War—the closest America ever came to disintegrating—was the culmination of a 73-year-old argument as to what those principles actually were, and was not the fault of a single leader.)

The short explanation for our system’s remarkable buoyancy is that the Founding Fathers hit the jackpot by dividing the federal government into three equal branches, with a bicameral legislature and a Supreme Court acting as checks on executive power.  This way, whenever the president does go too far, the remaining branches are empowered to rein him in and/or throw him out until Constitutional equilibrium is restored.  While this arrangement has never operated flawlessly and the power of the presidency has grown with each passing administration, it has worked just well enough to keep things chugging along.

Now, it’s possible that the United States has merely experienced 229 consecutive years of dumb luck and that Trump is now the right guy at the right time to give the Constitution that one final nudge over the cliff.  He certainly professes to care not a whit about the separation of powers, and we have every obligation to take him at his word.

Or rather, we don’t, because when has Trump’s word ever meant anything?

Don’t forget the one thing about Trump that we know for sure:  Whatever he says today has no bearing on what he might say tomorrow.  On matters related to policy and governing, he plainly doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about and, when asked a direct question, he reflexively spits out the first thought that pops into his head, no matter how incompatible it might be with all his previous statements on the issue—including, in some cases, what he said just a sentence or two earlier.

Nope.  It’s like we’ve been saying for months now:  Trump is the world’s most transparent con man whose only instinct is to say and do whatever he thinks will induce others to bend to his will.  Like every avaricious, status-obsessed windbag before him, he cares nothing for the public good except for how it might enrich him personally.

But here’s the thing:  Trump is not the first presidential candidate driven almost exclusively by narcissism and greed, nor would he be the first commander-in-chief bereft of a basic sense of right and wrong.

These are hardly attractive qualities in a leader of the free world, but they are not—in and of themselves—a hindrance to a competent and fruitful presidency, and even failed presidents can do genuinely good things.  Consider, for instance, that although Richard Nixon gave the world Watergate and four decades of cynicism about public officials, he still found time to open China and establish the EPA.  Or that while George W. Bush was unwittingly fostering a terrorist breeding ground in the Middle East, he was simultaneously funneling billions of dollars to diseased-ravaged countries in Africa, reportedly saving over one million lives and counting.

Long story short (too late?):  Just as Trump himself should quit being so inanely confident about his ability to foster a magical new American Eden, so should we dial back our own assumptions that, if given the chance, he would fail in a million different ways—or worse, that he would “succeed” in the most frightening possible sense.

It’s not that Trump has shown any real propensity for intellectual growth (he hasn’t), or that his whole candidacy has been an elaborate performance masking a much more serious and learned man (if so, he hides it well).

Rather, it’s that the presidency—that most peculiar of institutions—has a way of scrambling the expectations of every person who enters into it and every citizen who observes the machinations therein.  Like no other job on Earth, it has a way of turning great men into cowards and mediocrities into legends.

The truth is that we can’t know what kind of president someone will be until it’s too late to stop them.  With Trump—arguably the most erratic person to have sought the job in any of our lifetimes—this uncomfortable fact becomes all the more self-evident.  If we agree that he is inherently unpredictable, we must allow for the possibility that, once in office, he will do things that we have thus far failed to predict, and that we just might be pleasantly surprised by the results.

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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.

The Entertainer

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

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

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

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

Sounds about right to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A word about those supporters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Sitting President

In today’s America, could a cripple be elected president?

It’s a question that has hovered at the edges of our national consciousness for a while.  Having finally caught up with Ken Burns’ terrific PBS series The Roosevelts, I’ve found it move to the forefront of mine.

And the answer, by the way, is yes.

Of course we could elect a leader who is physically disabled.  On what possible basis would we not?

Whenever you listen to historians and other talking heads reminisce about Franklin Roosevelt’s paraplegia—and the elaborate lengths he went to conceal it—you find that it’s simply assumed that no political leader could pull off such a feat today.  That our invasive press corps and the Internet would made it impossible for a 21st century politician to mask any physical disability from the public on his way to elected office and that, in turn, it is extremely unlikely that such a person could win a national election.

This has long been the conventional wisdom on the matter, yet it’s a total non sequitur.  It skips right past the question of whether Americans would give an openly disabled candidate a fair shot, as if the notion were preposterous and not worth considering.  How wrong of us to think so.

Certainly, it’s true that a disabled person could not hide his or her condition from the public and would never bother to try.  But really, this fact only serves to underline the far more pertinent point that, in the year 2015, there would be no reason to do so.

In this era of the Special Olympics, prosthetic limbs and near-universal availability of ramps and handicapped parking spaces—to say nothing of the protections guaranteed by the Americans With Disabilities Act—disabled Americans are not nearly the pitied social outcasts they used to be.  For all the obvious pain and inconvenience that such afflictions wreak, our public institutions have made the experience as tolerable as they know how.  The stigma is as remote as it’s ever been.

In Franklin Roosevelt’s day, not so much.

Nearly everyone now is aware that the 32nd president suffered from polio and was unable to walk on his own.  What is far less known—and so compellingly portrayed in The Roosevelts—is how obsessed FDR was with fooling the world into thinking he was invincible.

The situation was as follows:  From August 1921 until his death in April 1945, Roosevelt was paralyzed below the waist, unable to walk or stand on his own power, and in private would use a wheelchair to shuttle from place to place.

However, in public—i.e. the final 12 years of his life—he made every effort to appear to be standing or walking like a normal person.  He would accomplish this either by leaning, ever-so-casually, against a door, railing or podium, or—if forward movement were required—by having trusted confidants flank both sides of his body and essentially carry him from point A to point B, with Roosevelt swaying back and forth to complete the illusion of fitness.

The only way he could stand at all was by wearing a pair of steel leg braces that, by all accounts, were unbelievably painful—a burden not to be wished on anybody, let alone the most powerful man on Earth.  Roosevelt, tasked with willing his country out of the Great Depression and then through a terrible world war, possessed a seemingly superhuman ability to always appear ebullient and resolute, but subsequent evidence has shown that he was forever at war with his own body.  Living as he did was uncomfortable at best, agonizing at worst.

Medically-speaking, he was insane to push himself in this way.  But he was so single-minded about keeping up appearances that he found it politically necessary not to let on that he was paralyzed.

And damned if he didn’t pull it off.  In an epoch with no television, no Internet and a comparatively deferent press corps, most if not all ordinary citizens were not aware that the president’s legs didn’t work.  (It didn’t hurt that the Secret Service would confiscate any film footage that would have made it clear.)  Whether it was deception or self-deception, the American public refused to accept the idea that the leader of the free world had any physical weaknesses.

The $64,000 question, then, is whether we still feel that way today.  To return to my earlier plea:  For what purpose would we deny ourselves the opportunity to elect a qualified presidential candidate just because he cannot walk on his own power?  Would we really have denied ourselves FDR—and reelected Herbert Hoover—if we knew then what we know now?

How stupid do we think we are?

First of all, there is no core presidential duty—then or now—that could not be performed by someone in a wheelchair.  The most guarded, pampered man on Earth will always have the capacity to get wherever he needs to be.  Accommodations will be made.

Second, the rules of political correctness ensure that were an opponent to even suggest that such a person would be unable to serve because of his condition, that person would be pilloried to within an inch of his life—charged with impugning the integrity not just of his opponent, but of every disabled person in America.

That’s roughly what happened in 2014 to Wendy Davis, the Democratic nominee for Texas governor, when she ran a TV ad that referred to her opponent’s own handicap in an attempt to label him a hypocrite.  (Long story.)

And that brings us to my third point, which is that Davis lost that election, meaning that Texas now has a governor in a wheelchair.  His name is Greg Abbott, he has been paraplegic since being struck by a falling tree in 1984 and that fact apparently played no role in the campaign and did not prevent him from being elected to the highest office in the state.  Voters decided his paraplegia is not relevant to the job and that was that.

Which begs perhaps the most important question of all:  Why can’t the rest of America be as enlightened and progressive as Texas?

The G Word

Today in Germany, it’s against the law to deny the existence of the Holocaust.

Today in Turkey, it’s against the law to affirm the existence of the Holocaust.

We’re talking here about two different Holocausts, but the point is the same:  Some countries have the courage to fess up to past atrocities, while others are abject cowards.

For us Americans, the responsibility to acknowledge other countries’ grievous sins would seemingly be straightforward.  And yet, in practice, it has become so fraught and complicated that you’d think we’d committed the crimes ourselves.

I’m speaking, of course, of the annual disgrace that is the American president’s failure to call the Armenian genocide by its rightful name.

Beginning on April 24, 1915—exactly a century ago—the Ottoman Empire in present-day Turkey began a process of premeditated, systematic murder against Christian Armenians living within its borders.  Generally, this was done either through outright slaughter or through prolonged “death marches,” whereby victims would ultimately starve.

At the start of World War I, Armenians numbered roughly two million within the empire itself.  By 1922, about 400,000 were left.

While there remains a debate about the exact numbers, a broad historical consensus has emerged that what happened to Armenians under the Ottoman Turks was, in fact, genocide.  That is, it was a deliberate attempt to annihilate an entire people on the basis of their ethnicity.

(An interesting linguistic footnote:  The word “genocide” did not exist until 1943.  In 1915, U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau referred to the Ottomans’ treatment of Armenians as “race extermination”—a term that, as Christopher Hitchens observed, is “more electrifying” than the one we now use.)

A century on, the legacy of the Armenian Holocaust is as contentious as ever.  However, the basic facts are only “controversial” in the sense that the basic facts about climate change are “controversial.”  Politicians continue to argue, but among the folks who actually know what they’re talking about—in this case, historians—the science is resoundingly settled.

Which brings us to the unnervingly Orwellian chapter of this story:  The careful refusal by every American president to utter the word “genocide” whenever the subject comes up.

It’s weird and frightening that this is the case, and in more ways than one—even when just considering the present occupant of the Oval Office.

You see, it’s not as if Barack Obama avoids the issue altogether.  Thanks to the efforts of the Armenian community in America and elsewhere, he doesn’t have a choice.

During this centennial week, Obama aides have met with several Armenian-American groups, and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew is in Armenia’s capital to mark the anniversary.  National Security Advisor Susan Rice, meeting with Turkish officials, called for “an open and frank dialogue in Turkey about the atrocities of 1915.”

Nor—while we’re at it—does Obama himself deny the truth that is staring him directly in the face.  In January 2008, as a presidential candidate, he said, “The Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact.”

And yet, in the six-plus years of the Obama administration, the word “genocide” has never passed the lips of any American official.

The explanation for this is depressingly straightforward:  Turkey, a strategic U.S. ally, denies that such a genocide ever took place, and the U.S. is terrified that if we declare otherwise, our relationship with Turkey will suffer irreparable harm.

That’s right:  Our government, in our name, is publicly maintaining a major historical lie in order to placate a foreign country that murdered a million and a half of its own citizens and, a hundred years later, still pretends that it didn’t.

By comparison, just imagine a world in which it was official U.S. policy not to formally recognize an organized plot by Hitler’s Germany to eradicate the Jewish population of Eastern Europe.  (To say nothing of the continent’s gays, Gypsies, Poles and others.)  Imagine if Germany today claimed that the six million Jewish casualties were essentially a fog-of-war coincidence.  Imagine if Angela Merkel arrested and jailed anyone who implied otherwise and the U.S. did nothing meaningful to stop her.

We don’t need to imagine it.  Replace “Germany” with “Turkey” and “Jews” with “Armenians,” and you’re left, more or less, with the world we have.

The Turkish government acknowledges that a great many Armenians were killed in the First World War, but denies that it was the Ottomans’ fault.  Further, thanks to Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, anyone who argues to the contrary can be imprisoned for the crime of “denigrating the Turkish Nation.”  By not going all the way in our condemnation, we Americans—the people who are supposed to be leading the world in justice and freedom—allow the practice to continue.

It’s a moral disgrace by all involved—an insult to Armenians, to history and to truth itself.  And everybody knows it.

That’s the creepiest part:  It’s not just that so many officials are saying something untrue.  They’re saying something untrue that everybody knows is untrue.

It’s the very essence of totalitarianism:  Create your own reality and exert no effort in making anyone believe it.

In actual dictatorships, this strategy works because the leaders wield absolute control over their citizens.  (To wit:  If you’re being starved, tortured, raped, etc., the fact that your government is also duplicitous is not a particularly high concern.)

On the other hand, such transparent dishonesty never works in democracies like ours, because our system is designed to make it impossible.  So long as we retain the freedom of expression, the separation of powers and a reasonably competent press corps, the truth will (eventually) rise to the surface.

So the president will eventually come around on this issue, and the Republic of Turkey will just have to deal with it.

Until that happens, however, Obama’s ongoing squeamishness will continue to validate the pessimism of many voters that the promise of “change” in Washington is an illusion.  That campaign pledges, however sincere at the time, will always ultimately be overruled by entrenched interests at home and abroad.  That insurgents who vow to “shake things up” are no match for the status quo.

To be sure, there’s no point in being naïve about these things.  If you’re the leader of the free world, you can’t just go insulting other countries willy-nilly and expect nothing bad to happen in return.  You have to accept the world as it is, politics is the art of the possible, blah blah blah.

But does the bar for political pragmatism really have to be set this low?  By acceding to other nations’ fantasies about the facts of history, aren’t we diminishing not just history but ourselves?  Are we not paying a random that any other wrongheaded country could demand as well?

Why would we do this?  Why should the bad guys win?

It’s certainly not inevitable.  Just look at Germany.

A mere seven decades after committing the most horrible crime against humanity in modern times, the Federal Republic of Germany stands not just as a stable, functioning, open society, but as Europe’s premier economic power and—crucially—just about as un-anti-Semitic as it’s possible for such a country to be.

Of course, in a nation so large, pockets of anti-Jewish sentiment still percolate, some of which manifest themselves through violence.  However, the overall prevalence of German anti-Semitism today is no greater than that of most other nations in Western Europe, and is considerably smaller than some (looking at you, France).

More to the point:  Since completely reinventing itself during and after the Cold War, Germany, in its official acts, has never stopped apologizing for its wretched past, even going so far (as I noted earlier) of punishing anyone who “approves of, denies or belittles an act committed under the rule of National Socialism,” along with anyone who “assaults the human dignity of others by insulting, maliciously maligning, or defaming segments of the population.”  This might explain why the country’s Jewish population doubled in the first five years after reunification, and then doubled again over the next decade and a half.

In America, of course, those sorts of laws would be completely unconstitutional, as the First Amendment guarantees the right to insult whoever you want.  However, as both a Jew and a defender of human dignity, I appreciate the sentiment.  Better to outlaw lies than truth.

This is all to say that Turkey will ultimately come to terms with the darkest period in its history, and all the reconciliation that it entails.  We can’t be sure how long it will take for such a proud nation to own up to its past cruelties.  But there is one thing of which we can be sure:  It will have no reason to take that leap until it stops being enabled into complacency by superpowers like us.

Popularity Fallacy

Jeez, can we knock it off about Bill Clinton’s amazing popularity, already?

You see the talk everywhere these days, including most recently in a column by Maureen Dowd in Sunday’s New York Times.

“As Hillary stumbles and President Obama slumps,” Dowd writes, “Bill Clinton keeps getting more popular.”  As evidence, Dowd cites a Wall Street Journal poll from June ranking the “most admired” presidents of the last 25 years (Clinton won by a mile); a YouGov survey measuring the perceived “intelligence” of the last eight commanders-in-chief (again, Clinton finished first); and a May Washington Post poll putting Clinton’s overall “favorable” rating at a 21-year high.

Indeed, strictly to the question, “Do most people today like Bill Clinton?” the answer is an indisputable “Yes,” and it hardly depends on the meaning of the word “like.”

However, I would argue the question itself is a silly and fairly useless one, as it is with regards to every living (or recently dead) ex-president.

Of course Bill Clinton is more popular today than he was, say, during the “Gingrich revolution” in 1994 or the Lewinsky fiasco in 1998.  Of course he enjoys more general goodwill than President Obama or possibly-future-President Hillary Clinton.

Bill Clinton left the White House on January 20, 2001.  Know what he’s been doing in the 13-and-a-half years since?

Not being president, that’s what.

George W. Bush, for his part, ended his presidency with an approval rating of 34 percent.  Today, that number is 53 percent.  What has Bush been doing these past five years to merit such a rise in stature?

Not being president and painting.

Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, also clocked approval numbers in the mid-30s during his final months on the job.  Today, he is nearly as admired as Clinton.  What’s he been up to?

Jumping out of airplanes, fishing, and (all together now) not being president.

Of course, I am being a tad unfair and simplistic.  America’s modern-day ex-presidents have, to varying degrees, done a great deal of good work after leaving office, for which they deserve kudos and a second look.  (Jimmy Carter has probably accomplished more in “retirement” than half our presidents did while in power.)

What is more, my “not being president” theory doesn’t even begin to address the large variance in overall perception among the many former presidents under examination (e.g.  Clinton ranks considerably higher than Carter), and the myriad possible explanations for it.

But the fact remains that nearly every president in modern history has become more admired in retirement than he often (or ever) was while in office.  To this extent, I think my reductionist hypothesis holds, and I’m sticking to it.

Consider:  To assume the presidency is to become the servant of each and every citizen of these United States, and to be personally responsible for their well-being (as far as they’re concerned, at least) and that of the country as a whole.  To be president is to be constantly photographed and broadcast, to be forever seen, heard and discussed, and to be drenched in a bottomless well of gripes and crises from every corner of the known universe.

However, the moment your term expires, all of that goes away.  To become an ex-president is to be freed not only from the duties and burdens of the office, but also from any expectations of leadership.  You can disappear into the woods, and no one will go looking for you.  You can play golf and eat junk food and no one will give you a second thought.  Constitutionally-speaking, a former president doesn’t have to do a damn thing for the rest of his life, and many have been quite happy to oblige themselves.

Long story short (too late?), we Americans approve of our former chief executives because we have no immediate or compelling reason not to.  Because they no longer wield supreme influence over our daily lives.  Because they are no longer on every TV screen every hour of every day.  Because they have transitioned from celebrities with power to mere celebrities.  Because their every move and every word are no longer of any relevance to our own existence, and maybe—at least in some cases—because we have forgotten the days when they did.

Today, Bill Clinton’s long-windedness and snark are adorable.  Would we feel the same way if he were employing them back in the Oval Office on the public dime?

George W. Bush has garnered near-universal praise for his marked disinterest in the nuances of foreign policy in his time away from Washington, even though this same quality yielded a decidedly different response when he was squarely in the middle of the action.

Time may not heal all wounds, but it can certainly numb them and render them moot.  As Paul McCartney said, reflecting on his years with the Beatles, “You always forget the bad bits.”

As we now consider the supposed “inevitability” of Clinton’s leading lady in her possible campaign for president, let us bear in mind that Hillary Clinton’s own popularity—not as high as her husband’s, but certainly an improvement over President Obama’s—is largely the product of her nearly six-year absence from the rough-and-tumble world of retail politics.  Once and if she returns to the arena, are the Democratic primary voters who so loathed her in 2008 going to be able to forgive and forget this time around?  Or is the thawing of their icy hatred contingent on her present status as an above-the-fray figure?

I think it is all-too-obvious that our views of one famous person or other are shaped by that person’s role in our own lives, and that the more benign and unobtrusive such a person is, the more popular he or she tends to be.

So stop talking about Bill Clinton’s enduring popularity as if it’s some sort of anomaly or in any way newsworthy.  It’s not and it’s not.  Rather, it is exactly what you would expect, particularly for a guy who wants nothing more than to be liked and who will go to extraordinary lengths to make it so.

A world leader being relieved of his power and becoming less admired as a result?  Now that would be news.

The Great Un-leveler

For a politician—or, really, for anyone—all the most interesting and revealing questions are the ones that come not from your enemies, but from your friends.  It’s easy enough for someone who doesn’t like you to attempt to catch you in a contradiction or make you look like a fool.  But when someone in basic agreement and sympathy with your views manages to trip you up and put you in a defensive crouch—well, now we’re getting somewhere.

That is essentially what occurred recently when Hillary Clinton faced Terry Gross in an interview on National Public Radio, and the subject turned to same-sex marriage.  On this, Gross asked Clinton what can only be characterized as a straightforward and obvious question:  Did Clinton’s present support for gay marriage, which she announced in March 2013, come about organically or as a consequence of political calculations?  Did her views “evolve” gradually or did she, in fact, privately support equal marriage rights long before saying so publicly?

Clinton’s history on the subject is as follows:  In 1996, her husband, President Bill Clinton, signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevented same-sex couples from being recognized as legal spouses by the federal government.  Hillary, for her part, publicly supported DOMA for at least the next seven years, both as first lady and as a New York senator, even as she spoke in favor of “domestic partnership measures” for gay people and introduced legislation to that end.

Her view, in effect, was that same-sex unions should be equal to opposite-sex unions in everything but name.  (Never mind that DOMA made even this compromise impossible.)

Clinton still opposed gay marriage rights during the 2008 presidential race, although she did repudiate Section 3 of DOMA in a 2007 questionnaire.  Her overall position—anti-marriage, pro-civil unions—remained more or less consistent until March of last year, when she joined Team Gay, fully and unequivocally, at last.

A reasonable conclusion to draw from this narrative, when considered piecemeal and in full, is that Hillary Clinton has always regarded homosexuals as morally equal to heterosexuals, and therefore would probably have openly supported same-sex marriage—the concept and the word itself—many years earlier than she did, had the issue not been made such a radioactive “wedge” from the mid-2000s onward.  (Only 42 percent of Americans favored gay marriage in 2004; support didn’t reach 50 percent until 2011.)

Because the subject has been so politically fraught, the theory goes, Clinton made the strategic decision to postpone a formal endorsement of marriage rights until the opinion polls made it politically safe to do so—even though this meant suppressing deeply-held convictions that, after all, placed her firmly on the right side of history.

This, in so many words, is what Terry Gross was attempting to get Clinton to acknowledge.  That even the defense of basic civil liberties is not immune to political calculations, and that Clinton, of all people, understands that there is a political component to everything, and has learned to act accordingly.

Realistically, Clinton had two possible ways to respond.  First, by affirming the charge with some version of, “Yes, I was in favor of gay marriage before 2013, but didn’t think it prudent to get involved in a domestic debate while being secretary of state.”  Or second, by rejecting the whole premise and insisting her private and public views are, and have always been, one and the same.

How did she actually respond?  With good old option number three:  By becoming paranoid and evasive, and accusing the interviewer of the lowest possible motives.  In this case, by accusing Gross of “playing with my words” and “trying to say that […] I used to be opposed and now I’m in favor and I did it for political reasons.”  (Gross did no such thing.  There is a big difference between timing your public views to suit political realities and inventing public views from whole cloth.)

And so I humbly ask:  Presented with a direct question, to which the only possible answers are A and B, what are we to make of someone who responds with anything other than A or B?  If the true answer to, “Are your stated views on gay marriage genuine?” is “Yes,” then what exactly is the disadvantage to simply saying so and moving on?  Why does the probe require an indignant straw man speech and an assumption of bad faith?

If you’re being defensive about something that (according to you) you have no reason to be defensive about, are we not duty-bound to infer a guilty conscience of one kind or another?

The issue here, finally, is not gay marriage, as such, but rather Hillary Clinton’s behavior when faced with a not-so-challenging line of inquiry, along with her apparent inability to level with the American public about any number of things, and her tendency to make enemies when there is no earthly reason to do so.

By no means should these troubling qualities prevent her from becoming president, as many of the previous 43 officeholders would affirm.  But nor should they prevent us from wondering if they would impinge upon her ability to be a good one.

Being led by a paranoid, calculating liar can, on occasion, have a downside.