It’s the Court, Stupid

There was a moment last week—thankfully, it was only a moment—when American liberals’ hearts stopped and it felt like the world was about to end.

It came when the U.S. Supreme Court announced that Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had recently undergone radiation treatment for a tumor in her pancreas—the latest in a long line of cancer scares for Ginsburg going back several decades. (She was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1999 and pancreatic cancer in 2009.)

While this most recent brush with mortality apparently ended well—“The tumor was treated definitively and there is no evidence of disease elsewhere in the body,” the court said—it served as a reminder—which we most certainly needed—that, at 86, the Notorious RBG will not be on the Supreme Court forever; that she is as susceptible to the ravages of age as the rest of us; and that her long and storied history of cheating death will one day come to an end.

Sooner or later, one way or another, Justice Ginsburg will be forced to relinquish her seat on the Supreme Court, enabling the then-president to nominate a successor—someone who, in all likelihood, will serve for the next 30 or 40 years.

As four out of five actuaries will tell you, that president will be Donald Trump.

Consider: Beyond Ginsburg’s own series of health calamities, only three Supreme Court justices in history have lived longer while on the bench than Ginsburg already has. Should Trump be defeated in 2020, Ginsburg would be two months shy of 88 when the new president is sworn in, at which point she could safely retire without the court’s center of gravity swinging irreparably to the right.

But if Trump is re-elected and serves until January 20, 2025? Well, what’s 88 plus four?

Did I mention that Stephen Breyer, the other long-serving liberal on the court, is just five years younger than Ginsburg and possibly less indestructible than she is?

I bring all of this up for one exceedingly simple reason: While the 2020 election may come to signify any number of things—about America, about democracy, about the future of Western civilization writ large—it will most assuredly determine the composition of the Supreme Court for a generation or more, and there is no more compelling reason for left-leaning voters to support the eventual Democratic nominee than that.

Long story short: The re-election of Trump all but guarantees a 7-2 conservative majority on the nation’s highest court. Just for starters, that means the disintegration of Roe v. Wade; the end of Obamacare as we know it; the solidification of the so-called “unitary executive theory,” whereby the president can do pretty much whatever the hell he wants for any reason. It means further erosion of the Voting Rights Act and firmer entrenchment of unchecked voter suppression. It means LGBTQ equality is no longer guaranteed but corporate personhood is. It means guns for all and unions for none.

It’s the great flaw of the Democratic Party (among many others) that its leaders can’t turn these dire, self-evident truths into a foundational election year issue—that they can’t seem to impart the monumental importance of the judicial branch in Americans’ day-to-day lives, and the singular role the president plays in shaping the composition thereof.

You know who did understand this dynamic and communicated it repeatedly, and to great effect, in 2016? Donald Effing Trump.

For all his blabbering, unprincipled incoherence on the campaign trail, candidate Trump made it crystal clear at every available opportunity—particularly when his back was against the wall and it looked like his entire candidacy was going up in smoke—that a vote for him was a vote for a right-wing judiciary from one end of the federal government to the other. That if Republicans entrusted him with control of the executive branch, he would bequeath them an unimpeachably conservative roster of judges—all with lifetime appointments—in return.

It was a brazen quid pro quo of the first order, and boy oh boy, did he deliver.

Ask a certain breed of conservative—the sort who found Trump by turns offensive, odious and embarrassing—why he held his nose and voted for him anyway, and he’ll simply rattle off two names: Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

That’s to say nothing of the president’s myriad appointments to the all-important circuit courts, filling vacancies that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell cynically—and, in retrospect, brilliantly—kept open while Barack Obama was in office.

This is neither to excuse nor justify the conscious enabling of an authoritarian, racist windbag by millions of voters who supposedly knew better.

Rather, this is to remind Democratic presidential candidates and their advocates that scaring their own voters about the future of the Supreme Court is an entirely valid and potentially fruitful strategy, and if self-preservation is an instinct they possess—a debatable question, at best—they could do a lot worse than to order a few million yard signs reading, “Democrats 2020:  Because RBG Isn’t Getting Any Younger.

To Love a Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet.

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

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

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

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

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

Why settle for anything less?

The Ultimate Aphrodisiac

American liberals have caught a lot of flak this season—some of it deserved—for the rigid purity tests they’ve imposed on the men and women auditioning to be the next president of the United States.

As irritating as this moral posturing tends to be, please indulge me one small litmus test of my own:  In November 2020, I will not vote for any candidate who has been credibly accused of rape.

Admittedly, this doesn’t seem like a terribly lot to ask of the would-be most powerful person on Earth—the man or woman who is supposed to be a role model for America’s children and grownups alike.

However, recent history would suggest otherwise.

If polls are to be believed, there is a certain chunk of the American electorate—somewhere north of 40 percent, at minimum—that does not consider accusations of sexual assault to be a deal-breaker for a future (or sitting) commander-in-chief.  This was first demonstrated two decades ago by the continued sky-high approval ratings for Bill Clinton following the rape allegation leveled by Juanita Broaddrick in 1999, and later confirmed by the election of the current chief executive, Donald Trump, whose penchant for grabbing women’s nether regions uninvited was exposed by the candidate himself (via “Access Hollywood”) in October 2016 and by more than a dozen women at regular intervals ever since.

It’s worth noting—in case it wasn’t obvious—that this implicit condoning of felonious, predatory sexual behavior by America’s head of state is not a one-party problem.  Liberals and conservatives have both been complicit, and both are guilty of gross hypocrisy on the matter.  For most Americans, it would seem, the morality of sexual violence by politicians is largely a function of time:  When the opposing party is in power, rape is bad.  When one’s own party is in power, rape is negotiable.

At the moment, of course, it’s Republicans who have disgraced themselves on the question of whether sexual assault is a good idea, thanks—most recently—to the disturbing revelations by E. Jean Carroll in New York Magazine.

In case you missed it, Carroll has claimed that Trump forced himself on her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room in the mid-1990s, which she tried—unsuccessfully—to resist.  While Carroll herself insists the encounter did not amount to rape and does not want to be viewed as a helpless victim, it is extremely difficult to read the details of her account and reach any other conclusion.

This bombshell initially landed on June 21 and, following a weekend of radio silence, was picked up by a handful of news organizations, which gave it enough oxygen to force the president to deny the incident ever occurred, adding—as only he can—“[Carroll] is not my type.”

In the weeks since, the whole nasty business has all but evaporated from the public consciousness, replaced by newer, flashier headlines on other subjects.  As with so much else, the prospect that the president once committed a violent sexual assault ended up being a three-day story, at most.  Ultimately, the public shrugged and moved on to other things.

It begs the question:  Why?

Are our attention spans so short that serious allegations of rape simply don’t register like they used to?  Are we so fatigued and fatalistic about this president’s long history of indiscretions that we have given up differentiating one from another?  Nearly two years into #MeToo, do we not believe E. Jean Carroll is telling the truth, or that her memory is faulty?

Or is it possible that we actually like the idea of a president who is effectively above the law?  Who can do whatever he wants and get off scot-free?  Who is exempt from all the usual rules of ethics and common decency?  Who can rape somebody on Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes?

We don’t admit this out loud, of course.  We use euphemisms like “He’s politically incorrect,” or “He tells it like it is,” or my personal favorite, “He’s not a politician.”

Whichever option is closest to the truth, the underlying rationalization is that any level of unscrupulousness and corruption by the Dear Leader is tolerable so long as he ultimately gives his constituents what they want. 

Trump, for his part, has long been described as a purely transactional figure—someone for whom the ends always justify the means and the notion of right and wrong is a foreign concept.  Less remarked upon—but no less important—is that the general public is transactional as well, and is prepared to forgive any number of shortcomings in service of a greater good.

Hence Trump’s consistently stratospheric approval ratings among Republicans.  After all, if you voted for him on the grounds that he would cut your taxes, appoint conservative judges and make refugees’ lives a living hell, why wouldn’t you be happy with the way this presidency has panned out thus far?

The left can crow all it wants about what a sordid ethical compromise Trump’s base has made, but Democrats’ moral superiority is only as good as the next president of their own party.  Liberals were perfectly happy to excuse every one of Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadillos while he was in power and carrying out their agenda (such as it was).  While they have had a radical change of heart in recent years, I cannot help but wonder if they would feel differently if The Man From Hope were still in the Oval Office today.

Henry Kissinger famously said, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” and it turns out that applies not only to those exercising power, but also to the many millions of beneficiaries of it.  It’s a pretty ugly sight when roughly half the nation consciously accepts a credibly accused rapist as the instrument of their political ends, but then one reason we have elections is to correct course, as America stands to do on November 3, 2020.  While there’s more to the presidency than not being a sexual criminal, it’s a perfectly decent place to start.

Perhaps electing a woman would do the trick.

Nice and Not Crazy

I’ll begin with a confession:  I like Charlie Baker.  I like him a lot.  When he ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2014, I voted for him on the assumption that he was a competent, decent, even-tempered guy who shared most of my core values and would play well with others on Beacon Hill.

After four years on the job—and on the eve of his likely election to a second term—Baker strikes me as a competent, decent, even-tempered guy who shares most of my core values and plays well with others on Beacon Hill.

Broadly speaking, Baker has been exactly the sort of governor I expected him to be, and I’ve never once regretted endorsing him the first time around.  All things being equal, I would have no qualms voting for him again on Tuesday, if only in recognition of the refreshing normalness and temperance of both his administration and his own character.

And yet, in 2018, all things are not equal.  Our country runs on a two-party system, and over the last several years, one of those parties has retained a minimal sense of civic responsibility, while the other has lost its goddamned mind.

For all his personal and political strengths, Charlie Baker is a card-carrying Republican at a moment in history when Republicans, as a group, have proved themselves both unable and unwilling to govern in a rational, productive manner—opting, instead, to tether themselves to the moral abomination that is President Donald Trump.

Until this changes—that is, until Trump ceases to be the embodiment and figurehead of the present-day GOP—I simply cannot stomach lending support to any candidate who identifies with the same party as our insane commander-in-chief.

In some ways, this is unfair—if only in this one case.  As Massachusetts residents well know, Baker is about as un-Trump-like as a Republican could possibly be in 2018.  He’s the guy, for instance, who signed a first-in-the-nation bump stock ban following the massacre in Las Vegas last October.  He’s the guy who (belatedly) supported a law protecting transgender rights, and is now defending said law against a ballot referendum that would reverse it.  He’s the guy who violated his own “no new taxes” pledge in order to fund paid family leave and raise the state’s minimum wage.  He’s the guy who, when asked to pick three words to describe President Trump, chose, “Outrageous.  Disgraceful.  Divider.”

With a record like that, one wonders why Baker doesn’t just get it over with and declare himself a Democrat—or, at the very least, pull a Jeff Flake and publicly lament that the GOP of yore is nothing like the GOP of today.  With an approval rating in the upper 60s and arguably the most liberal constituency in the nation, what, for heaven’s sake, would he have to lose by turning his back on the Republican Party once and for all?

While we wait for a satisfactory answer, the good people of Massachusetts have another choice for governor this year in the person of Jay Gonzalez—like Baker, a former health insurance executive and secretary of administration and finance—whose progressive bona fides are unassailable and in perfect sync with those of the commonwealth he hopes to lead, up to and including his pledge to enact single-payer healthcare and tax the rich to pay for it.

Indeed, from transportation to the environment, from education to civil rights, Gonzalez’s pitch to voters can roughly be distilled to, “I will do what Baker is doing, but with more enthusiasm and higher taxes.”  As a candidate, Gonzalez has effectively diagnosed Baker’s most glaring flaw—namely, his maddening reluctance to tackle major problems in a bold, aggressive manner—and spoken truth to lameness in arguing, “The measure of whether our governor’s doing a good job shouldn’t be that he’s nice and not crazy.”

Fair enough.  But if that’s really the case, why is Gonzalez—the more natural ideological fit for Massachusetts—currently trailing Baker by nearly 40 points in the polls?

My own answer—the one that nearly drove me back into Baker’s arms until the final days of this campaign—is that America deserves two fully-functioning political parties, each populated by the best and brightest minds available, and when it comes to the GOP, Charlie Baker is about as good as it’s gonna get.  If we throw Baker out with the bath water, his party’s ideological center of gravity will move ever-farther to the right, which in the long run would bode well neither for the party nor America as a whole.  That may not be reason enough for liberals to vote for him on November 6, but it’s nonetheless sufficient to make one feel a slight tinge of relief that he’s probably gonna stick around for another four years.

Let Them Eat Tacos

I have no idea why the secretary of Homeland Security would dine out at a Mexican restaurant on the very day she defended the use of internment camps at the Mexican border.  I don’t know why the White House press secretary would show her face anywhere while acting as a mouthpiece for the most dishonest chief executive to ever sit in the Oval Office.

(If you missed it:  Last Tuesday, protesters yelled “shame!” at Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen inside MXDC Cocina Mexicana in Washington, D.C.  Three days later, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave the 26-seat Red Hen in Lexington, Va., by the restaurant’s owner after several employees were made uncomfortable by Sanders’s presence.)

I’m not the least bit surprised that both of those public officials would be confronted by angry constituents while attempting to enjoy a relaxing night on the town.  Given the tenor of public discourse in 21st century America, the miracle is that this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often—or more violently.

I understand instinctively why those concerned citizens feel the need to vent their outrage at these crooks and liars face-to-face when given the opportunity.

In the future, however, I wish they would resist the urge to do so.

Before we go any further, I should probably mention that I am about the least confrontational person on the East Coast.  I’m not sure I’ve ever started an argument with anyone in my adult life, and whenever someone attempts to start an argument with me, I make every effort to tactfully withdraw from the conversation and/or the room.  For all the self-righteous vitriol I’ve unfurled on this site over the years, the notion of telling an odious prominent figure, in person, what I really think of them fills me with bottomless anxiety and dread.

Admittedly, as a privileged, native-born white male, it is very easy for me to hang back on the sidelines and allow human events (however alarming) to run their course.  For someone like me, the actions of President Trump and his collaborators may be irritating—even horrifying—but they do not pose an existential threat to my way of life and probably never will.

I realize, in short, that spending one’s day avoiding conflict and social discomfort is a luxury that many of my fellow Americans cannot afford, and that sometimes verbally lashing out at those who oppress you can feel like a moral imperative—and possibly the only recourse that is available to you as an otherwise powerless individual.  If members of the Trump administration are deliberately and pointlessly making millions of Americans’ (and non-Americans’) lives difficult, the argument goes, why shouldn’t they get a taste of their own toxic medicine whenever they enter space occupied by the victims of their noxious acts?

The reason they shouldn’t—the reason all public servants should be left unmolested when they’re not on the clock—is because Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high,” and every liberal in America cheered.

By its own rhetoric, if the Democratic Party stands for anything in the age of Trump, it’s moral superiority.  Whether stated directly or implicitly, the message from Democratic leaders and supporters in recent years is that, all things being equal, Democrats are the party of sanity, empathy and love for one’s fellow human beings, while Republicans are (to coin a phrase) deplorable.

Without question, Donald Trump’s own rotten character was the primary basis of voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016—“Love Trumps Hate” was arguably Clinton’s most successful and resonant slogan—and most liberals still regard Trump’s penchant for childish name-calling and general thuggery as an intolerable moral stain that must be repudiated at the polls in 2018 and 2020—namely, by voting for as many Democratic candidates as possible.

The question is:  If the left truly believes in the Judeo-Christian ethos of treating others as you would have others treat you—and that Trump and company constitute a monstrous perversion of this policy—do they not have a responsibility to exhibit such mature, noble behavior themselves?  To lead by example?  To understand that darkness cannot drive out darkness—only light can do that?  To be the change they want to see in the world?

I say yes, and this includes allowing Nielsen and Sanders to eat their dinner in peace, whether or not they deserve it.  Because in the end, this isn’t about them.  It’s about us.  And it’s not a good look for the so-called party of inclusion to start telling certain people they’re not welcome and they don’t belong.

The GOP Reaps What It Sows

Super Tuesday saw a veritable fruit salad of disingenuous comments from all parties involved—from Marco Rubio’s declaration of victory after losing 11 of 12 states to Donald Trump’s claim of being a “uniter” at the very moment when several leading members of his party announced they would rather suck on an exhaust pipe than allow Trump to become the face of the GOP.

However, if there was one assertion that rose above all the others for its sheer, jaw-dropping chutzpah, it was the following reaction to Trump’s continued success from Speaker of the House Paul Ryan:

If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games.  They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry.  This party does not prey on people’s prejudices.  We appeal to their highest ideals.  This is the party of Lincoln.  We believe all people are equal in the eyes of God and our government.  This is fundamental, and if someone wants to be our nominee, they must understand this.

Between that statement and Chris Christie’s facial expressions during Trump’s victory speech, I can’t remember the last time I laughed this hard following a presidential primary night.

Specifically, Ryan was addressing Trump’s initial reluctance to bat away the endorsement of a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, although (let’s face it) he could’ve been referring to pretty much anything Trump has said or done over the last eight months.

While Ryan deserves heaping praise for taking such a clear, principled stand against everything Donald Trump represents, his characterization of the party he leads is so comically lacking in self-awareness that Trump himself could not have put it any better.

The Republican Party doesn’t prey on people’s prejudices?  It believes all people are created equal?  Speaker, please.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I could’ve sworn the GOP had built its entire brand—say, over the last three or four decades—on such “high ideals” as denying marriage rights to same-sex couples because God intoned that gays are no different from murderers and child molesters.  I do believe it was Republican leaders who defended the “liberty” of business owners to deny service to gay customers for the exact same reason.

Whenever an unarmed black teenager is senselessly murdered by a white police officer, Republicans are always the first to assume the kid must’ve done something to deserve it.  When it comes to elections, Republican officials never hesitate to make it as difficult as possible for African-Americans and Hispanics to be able to cast a vote.

Quick as GOP leaders are to evoke “religious liberty” as a cornerstone of American democracy, they somehow always find a loophole for anyone wearing a turban, hijab or some other manner of foreign-looking funny hat.  (Rarely, of course, do most Republicans take the time to understand which funny hat corresponds to which foreign-looking religion.)

Perhaps you saw the exit poll showing that 60 percent of Republican voters agree with Trump’s plan to prevent Muslims from entering the United States on the basis of their religion.  Even assuming that every single Trump voter is included in that 60 percent, we are still left with 40-50 percent of non-Trump GOP voters who apparently think that all Muslims are terrorists.  Or, at minimum, that Muslims are so inherently suspect that it’s worth discriminating against all of them on a federal level.  You know, just in case.

This is the party Paul Ryan would have as a paragon of liberty, equality and justice:  A party distrustful of Muslims, contemptuous of gays and utterly oblivious to the plight of Hispanics and blacks.  If Ryan is serious that any prospective nominee “must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry,” they would need to begin with the Republican Party itself.

Ryan calls it “the party of Lincoln.”  If I may rework a line from a classic Woody Allen movie:  If Lincoln came back and saw what was going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.

Cruz Out of Control

Is it just me, or is Ted Cruz the most transparently cynical politician on planet Earth?

In the interest of charity, let’s say it’s just me.  After all, there are plenty of cynical people in politics, and picking out the cynical-est of them all is a bit like choosing which Oscar nominee is the most Caucasian:  In the end, why not just call it a tie?

Yet it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, even among the most craven of presidential contenders, the junior senator from Texas is in a league all his own.  While this has been true from the moment he appeared on the scene, his steady ascension in the polls has made his abject wretchedness a matter of national concern.

Indeed, the sheer chutzpah infused in every sentence that comes out of Cruz’s mouth is a wonder to behold, as you realize we’re dealing with someone who will say and do just about anything to become the next Republican nominee—and, presumably, the next president—and who apparently has no understanding of the word “shame.”

If we wanted to be succinct about this, we could merely cite his recent Duck Dynasty-themed TV ad and call it a day.  (Seriously, how many hours were devoted to that face paint?)  Or we could revisit that time he cooked bacon by wrapping it around the muzzle of a machine gun and firing away.  (No, dear reader, that moment was not a hallucination.)

Truly, in the realm of primary season pandering, Cruz is a visionary and a prophet.  You sense that if he could win 15 more votes by skinning a live raccoon and wearing its carcass as a hat, he would do so without a moment’s pause—with a big, fat smile on his face.

Which brings us to the $1.6 billion question:  Is Ted Cruz as stupid as he looks?

Answer:  Absolutely not.  A graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law and a nationally-recognized debater at both, Cruz is arguably the most intellectually formidable person in the GOP field, capable of processing complex ideas in ways that most other public figures don’t even attempt.  If you’re a Republican voter who values smarts above all else, Ted is most assuredly your man.

Herein lies the paradox and the punch line, which is that Cruz’s long-term electoral success depends almost entirely on garnering the support of idiots—folks who, at best, don’t give a rat’s ass about a fancy Ivy League education and, at worst, are openly contemptuous of those who have one.

Cruz understands as well as anybody that his only hope of winning the nomination is by pretending to be a total dunderhead, and damned if he isn’t giving it the old college try.  He is not going to let a little thing like dignity get in the way of becoming the most powerful man on Earth.

In this sense, Cruz doesn’t employ cynicism so much as he embodies it.  While the word “cynicism” has been used rather haphazardly in our public discourse over the years, it can best be defined here as purposefully saying something false in the understanding that your audience is too dumb to know the difference.

Up to now, Donald Trump’s birtherism has arguably been the gold standard on this front.  From the beginning, Trump knew perfectly well that Barack Obama was born in the United States and was constitutionally qualified to be president.  And yet, once he made the calculation (rather brilliantly, I must say) that there were enough ignorant rubes with whom he could build a base of support for his eventual foray into politics, he embraced the “Obama was secretly born in Kenya” conspiracy theory whole hog and—presto chango!—he is now the most popular Republican in U.S. politics.

Into this deranged, noxious atmosphere, Ted Cruz materialized last fall with possibly the most cynical public pose of all:  Embracing Trump as a swell guy with a lot of really good points.

Recall, if you will, that while Trump was inexplicably rising in stature with one galling, infantile comment after another, all of his GOP counterparts denounced and distanced themselves from him—except for Ted Cruz.  As Trump was called a “blowhard” by Jeb Bush and a “buffoon” by Rand Paul, Cruz all but linked arms with the Donald, insisting that the latter had his finger to the GOP winds and should not be so quickly discounted as some kind of unhinged carnival barker (thank you, Martin O’Malley).

Politically, it was a bold move for Cruz to align himself with a man with no apparent moral compass—someone willing to alienate virtually every racial and ethnic group in America as a means of taking over the GOP.  Like Trump himself, Cruz wagered that there were enough bigots and paranoids in the electorate to comprise a plurality of Republican primary voters, and that if those fine, upstanding citizens ever soured on Trump, why shouldn’t Cruz position himself as their next-best bet?

It seemed like an insane gambit at the time:  Trump was clearly a disaster waiting to happen and who in his right mind would tag along with that?

As it turned out—in a predictably unpredictable manner—Cruz’s low opinion of Republican voters proved 100 percent accurate, and he has benefitted from their credulity every step of the way.  While Trump remains as admired as ever, Cruz is in the best possible position to absorb Trump voters in the event of a flameout.  For Cruz, short of actually being in the lead, everything has gone precisely according to plan.

In the past few days, of course, all hell has broken loose as the unofficial détente between Trump and Cruz has officially come to an end.  Suddenly vulnerable, Trump has begun treating Cruz as disrespectfully as all his other rivals, while Cruz has finally—finally!—hinted as to what he really thinks about his party’s bully-in-chief.

While I haven’t the slightest idea how the average Republican primary voter is taking this drastic turn of events, I think I speak for most leftists and other non-Republicans in calling this the most entertaining clash of the entire 2016 race.  All presidential campaigning is crack to political junkies, but Trump v. Cruz is a veritable eight ball of excitement, and it’s going to produce one hell of a hangover when all is said and done.

Why is this fight different from all other fights?  Easy:  Because neither fighter has the slightest shred of integrity or self-awareness and—perhaps not coincidentally—both are born showmen and narcissists concerned with the fortunes of no one but themselves.

To wit:  When Trump was exchanging insults with, say, Jeb Bush, the tiff was implicitly a battle between lunacy and reason, with Bush assuming the mantle of the latter as an antidote to the former.

Against Cruz, the rules of engagement have managed to achieve an added level of ridiculousness, as neither man has the faintest interest in moderation, decorum or intellectual coherence.  By every known account, Ted Cruz is the most personally unpleasant member of the U.S. Senate, particularly among those in his own party.  It might seem odd that a man of such intelligence and education would be so detested by his fellow Republicans—that is, until you realize that he channels every modicum of his rhetorical gifts to advance his own selfish interests (read:  being elected president), often in the most heavy-handed and theatrical way possible.

Indeed, we can’t know whether Cruz means a word of what he says, because—much like Trump—every syllable is uttered entirely for effect, without regard for the consequences of turning those words into actions.

Lately, for instance, Cruz has mused about “carpet bomb[ing] ISIS into oblivion,” partly to find out “if sand can glow in the dark.”  While we have all expressed such sentiments about how we would personally handle terrorism—typically in a college dorm at 4 o’clock in the morning after 10 or 12 drinks—to hear a sober grown-up say them in the middle of the afternoon—well, it’s a bit like those closet cases who are little too effusive about how much they love women.  There is a whiff of phoniness and overcompensation in the air.

Except that doesn’t matter with Cruz, because his target audience is precisely the sort of gang that eats that stuff up and thinks all problems can be solved with apocalyptic violence.  Since Trump’s attitude on this is virtually identical to Cruz’s (on ISIS:  “I would bomb the shit out of them”), their matchup is destined to be the most childish, petty and substance-free contest in memory, and there may not be enough popcorn to get us through it.  (At least not after we leave Iowa.)

It was Andrew Sullivan in 2009 who said the Republican Party would get worse before it gets better, but I think even he didn’t foresee just how completely the GOP would disintegrate into nihilism and self-parody.  How even its highest-achieving thinkers would appeal to the lowest common denominator.

At that point, you’ll recall, Sarah Palin was the party’s great shining star—an ideological demagogue who, on the basis of her syntax, was every bit as dumb as she appeared.  How interesting, then, that the current war for the nomination is between two demagogues who, by their backgrounds, are perfectly capable of enlightened, serious leadership but, because of what their party has become, have no plausible route to success except through cynicism and bombast.

Fasten your seatbelts, citizens.  It’s gonna be a bumpy year.

American on Purpose

Should Ted Cruz be elected president?  Heaven forbid.

But should he be permitted to run?  Sure, why not?

Now that we have successfully reached the year 2016, it is a moral certainty that we will be subjected to a Big Fat Political Controversy at least once a week between now and November 8.  This week, the issue happens to be whether Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas, is constitutionally eligible to assume the highest office in the land.

As perhaps you’ve heard, Cruz was born in Calgary, Alberta in 1970.  At the time, his father was a Canadian citizen by way of Cuba, while his mother was an American by way of Delaware.  The family moved to Texas when Ted was four, and he has lived there ever since.

The question:  Is that good enough to satisfy the requirement that the president be a “natural born citizen” of the United States?

As far as I’m concerned, yes, it does.  Case closed.

In general, of course, one’s personal opinion about a constitutional matter is as worthless as one’s opinion about global warming.  As Neil deGrasse Tyson would say, certain things are true whether you believe them or not.

However, this particular issue is not one of those things.  In establishing qualifications for the presidency, our founding fathers didn’t bother outlining what a “natural born citizen” actually is, effectively leaving their descendents—we, the people—to figure it out for themselves.

In point of fact, should Cruz become the GOP standard-bearer later this year, he would be the first nominee of either major party born outside the United States and its territory, meaning there is no direct precedent for him in our 227-year history of presidential elections.

As for indirect precedents, there are two:  The GOP’s 2008 candidate, John McCain, was born on a naval base near the Panama Canal, while the party’s 1964 candidate, Barry Goldwater, was born in Arizona before it officially became a state.  Although there was some controversy as to whether either of those circumstances fit the bill, lawyers and scholars ultimately decided in the affirmative, concluding that the spirit of the Constitution is surely broad enough to encompass those who—as any reasonable person would surmise—are of American descent and loyal to no country other than the United States.

To my thinking, that is the overriding principle to bear in mind:  Do the circumstances of a person’s birth and upbringing make it plain that he or she is a true blue American, not beholden to the whims and values of any other nation?

Call me crazy, but I would wager that anyone who has lived continuously in the United States since he was four and is currently serving as a U.S. senator is, for all intents and purposes, about as American as one can get.

If pressed, however, I might suggest a scenario that would make Cruz even more of an American:  That is, if he had lived in a foreign country until, say, age 40 (instead of four) and then moved to Texas and run for the U.S. Senate.

While generalizing about large groups of people is almost always a mistake, personal experience has taught me that the most patriotic Americans of all are immigrants—those who live in the United States by choice, not by accident.  The folks who are born somewhere else and, at one point or another, say to themselves, “You know what?  I think I’d like to live in America, instead.”

Those of us who were born in the U.S.A. rarely appreciate how lucky we are—how we get to reside in the greatest, freest, awesomest place in the universe without so much as filling out a form or passing a test.  How the mere fact of our parentage carries more sway than our knowledge of history, our level of civic engagement or our moral fiber.

Immigrants don’t have it so easy.  Not even close.  President Trump or not, to become a naturalized citizen, you have to work.  And work and work and wait and work and wait some more.

How arduous is the naturalization process, you ask?  Well, it took roughly two years for Christopher Hitchens to formally transition from a Briton to an American—and he was a prolific author and journalist who had lived in Washington, D.C., for more than a quarter-century prior to applying for citizenship.  One can easily imagine (or look up) the obstacles for someone who doesn’t have a publishing house and a fan following to vouch for his worthiness—not to mention someone who doesn’t speak English or who comes from a politically dodgy part of the world.

On the whole, naturalized citizens are more inherently patriotic than the “natural born” because the former truly have to mean it just to get in the front door, whereas the latter get their citizenship for free, no questions asked and regardless of merit or any other factor.  And American citizenship, once secured, is very nearly impossible to lose, which begs the question of why those who receive it automatically are given first priority when it comes to running for commander-in-chief.

Shouldn’t it be the other way around?  Shouldn’t it be we natives who must somehow prove ourselves as Real Americans?  We are constantly reminded of how pathetic native born citizens fare on the basic civics test that immigrants are required to pass.  (Quick:  Which constitutional amendment guarantees the right to a fair trial?)  Is it too much to ask that our presidential candidates know at least as much about the American way of life as, say, a lowly transplant from Uganda?

The supposed dangers of electing a foreigner to the nation’s highest office—however sensible in 1787—are fairly laughable in today’s world.  The idea that a “usurper” (that wonderful 18th century term) could successfully burrow into American society and destroy it from within—or simply curry favor with his or her country of birth—seems a bit far-fetched in a 21st century American culture that pokes into every last detail of a candidate’s past before allowing him or her within 100 miles of the Oval Office.  For Pete’s sake, Barack Obama is still subject to paranoia about his loyalties and intentions and he was born in the United States.

Are we really about to elect a bona fide Manchurian Candidate without anyone anywhere realizing it?  Far be it from me to overestimate the intelligence of the American public, but I think this just might be something we could handle.  Besides, if we couldn’t, would this really be a country worth saving?

As it stands, by maintaining the “natural born citizen” clause of the Constitution, we are every year denying the chance for millions of people to become the next great leader of the free world, for no reason except that their parents happened not to live in the U.S. (or be citizens thereof) at the time of their birth.  In such an interconnected world as this, that seems like a rather paltry rationale for dividing Americans into the worthy and the unworthy.

We should get rid of this rule once and for all.  In the meantime, let’s leave Ted Cruz alone.

Springtime For Donald (and the GOP)

I don’t know why I didn’t see it before—perhaps it took a Hitler comparison to really hammer the point home—but I’ve found the perfect reference point for the bizarro performance art that is the Trump presidential campaign.  Indeed, it’s so obvious there’s really no way around it.

Donald Trump is The Producers come to life.

Y’all know The Producers.  A 1968 film and a 2001 musical, Mel Brooks’ masterpiece of lunacy is the story of a washed-up Broadway kingpin, Max Bialystock, who schemes to put on the most unwatchable, offensive Broadway musical ever produced—a show guaranteed to close in one night, enabling Bialystock to pocket his investors’ money without ever needing to pay it back.

As an elaborate act of fraud, this teeters on the edge between ingenious and completely nuts.  In any case, it shows real gumption on Bialystock’s part—a level of greed and hunger, at once spectacular and pathetic, of which we can only stand in awe.

You can probably see where I’m going with this.

Whenever any prominent public figure runs for high office, we more or less take it as read that he really means it—that he genuinely (if misguidedly) thinks he could win and is prepared to assume the awesome responsibilities of the office should he succeed.

We do not generally presume, for instance, that a quasi-serious presidential candidate would run for purely mercenary reasons—a drawn-out charade to make an extra few (million) bucks.  True, virtually all candidates tend to release a book upon entering the race—in America, there is always a profit to be made somewhere—but we nonetheless grant them their sincerity.  After all, considering what an epic headache the whole electoral process is, what kind of lunatic would dive in just for the hell of it?

A lunatic named Trump, that’s who.

Look:  None of us can prove that Donald Trump doesn’t take his own candidacy seriously and that his play for the White House is nothing more than a means of feeding his planet-sized ego before he ultimately tiptoes out the back door—say, a few hours prior to the Iowa caucuses.  Nor can we prove that he doesn’t actually give a damn about the wellbeing of the Republican Party or, for that matter, the country as a whole.  Or that he is, in fact, a secret Democratic Party mole who is actively sabotaging the GOP’s chances of ever winning another presidential election.

We don’t know any of these things for sure.  All we can say—and we might as well—is that if Donald Trump were a Democratic double agent sent in to destroy the GOP from within, the resulting blast would look almost exactly like what’s going on right now.

After all, this was supposed to be the year the Republican Party would make nice with various racial and ethnic minority groups.  The year the party’s mythical “big tent” would expand to include enough non-white voters to actually carry a national election in our increasingly non-white society.

This being the case, what better result could the Democrats hope for than a GOP standard-bearer who is so fanatically hostile towards those very folks—Hispanics and Muslims most of all—that he has undertaken a one-man crusade to literally banish them from the country?  A guy who has effectively taken one look at these potential electoral converts and said, “Go screw yourselves.”

It would all make perfect sense if Trump were a fictional character dreamed up in a laboratory at Democratic National Committee headquarters.  Or—more plausibly—if, like Max Bialystock, he were deliberately self-sabotaging as part of a ruse to reap maximum benefits while assuming minimal responsibility—that is, enjoying the perks of running for president without the complications of actually being president.

In any case, Trump is plainly a slow-motion catastrophe for the GOP, which brings us to the most Producers-like component of this whole ridiculous story:  The fact that Trump’s methods have managed to backfire in every conceivable way.  No matter how insane his candidacy becomes, he just can’t seem to lose.

In the Mel Brooks film, of course, the show that Bialystock and his accountant, Leo Bloom, decide to produce is a neo-Nazi valentine to the Third Reich by the name of Springtime for Hitler.  In New York City of all places—an oasis of liberalism, Judaism and highbrow artistic tastes—nothing could be more toxic than an unironic paean to the good old days of the SS and Aryan supremacy.

The punch line, then, is that Bialystock’s audience members—more jaded and sophisticated than he gives them credit for—take Springtime for Hitler as a big, bold farce and laugh themselves halfway into next week.  As a result, the show is a smashing success and Bialystock finds himself on the precipice of financial ruin.

Candidate Trump is certainly a farce in his own right—a galling, topsy-turvy perversion of reality with bottomless comedic potential—except that the foundation of his surprising success is precisely the opposite of Bialystock’s:  Trump is winning because his audience can’t see through the façade.  Even as his whole shtick is essentially an Onion article that’s gotten out of hand, his supporters take him deadly seriously and think his ideas about mass deportation and religious persecution are just swell.  The more outrageous his public statements become, the higher he rises in the polls.

It begs the question:  Is there not a limit to Trumpism, after all?  If his slurs against Mexicans, women, prisoners of war, the disabled and now Muslims have failed to do him in, is there anything that will?  What is left for him to say that could feasibly erode his evidently bulletproof base of support?

The Springtime for Hitler connection is apt:  If you behave vaguely like a fascist dictator and still can’t get your fans to hate you—all the while being explicitly compared to the Führer in the press and apparently not minding it—then the crazy train can no longer be routed back to the station.  It’s going over the bridge and into the ravine, and that’s all there is to it.

Back in July, the actual Onion ran a story titled, “Admit It:  You People Want To See How Far This Goes, Don’t You?”  At that point, Trump was still a novelty item whose popularity, however surprising, was nothing to get too alarmed about, because we knew that somebody in that field would put him in his place.

Now that all of those assurances about Trump’s eventual collapse have proved false—or at least supremely premature—we onlookers have little choice but to morbidly peek our eyes through our fingers until this horror show finally plays itself out.

While we can sleep easy knowing that both history and statistics show that a Trump nomination—let alone a Trump presidency—is the longest of long shots, we can plunge ourselves right back into panic and despair over the likelihood that, should Trump manage to shame and disgrace himself all the way to the White House, he, like us, won’t have the slightest idea how he got there.

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.