The Popularity Paradox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

He’s Not Going Anywhere

If Donald Trump dropped dead tomorrow, his presidency would go down as a bizarre, disgraceful failure—albeit a unique, memorable and morbidly entertaining one.  Eight weeks in, the Trump administration has earned every ounce of skepticism that a majority of the public has nursed since Day 1, swerving wildly between quasi-authoritarian histrionics and clueless, bumbling ineptitude—“malevolence tempered by incompetence,” as one journalist put it.

In fact, Trump will not be checking out anytime soon, as doing so would violate Lewis Black’s first general rule of health:  “The good die young, but pricks live forever.”

Sorry, folks:  Not only is this roller coaster of shame real, but it has barely left the goddamned gate.  To ask—as one does—whether this president’s noxious mixture of cruelty, duplicity and cynicism can be sustained at its current velocity for another four years is to miss the main point.  Of course this horror show will continue exactly as it has begun:  Trump has neither the inclination nor the ability to behave as anything other than what he is.  His appeal, his “brand”—his very identity—hinges on his being a vindictive, ignorant jerk 24 hours a day, and he is not about to elevate the interests of the republic above his crippling need for unending praise and attention.

I bear this bad news having just re-watched Oliver Stone’s 1995 biopic Nixon—a film that, at this moment, I would recommend to every man, woman and child in America—or at least to anyone who requires some historical perspective on the seemingly unprecedented political quagmire we find ourselves in today.  As past presidents go, Richard Nixon is and will forever be the Rosetta Stone for understanding the machinations of Donald Trump, and Stone’s exuberant dramatization of Nixon’s life is an invaluable visual document of modern American history at its worst.

The first thing to recall about Nixon, our 37th president, is that he was an unconscionable scumbag.  A vile, ugly, selfish, paranoid, shameless, cynical, racist crook.  An opportunist and a con man.  A liar and a cheat.  A hollow shell of a human being who exerted bottomless energy toward political score-settling and practically none at all toward making America a better place to live.

The second thing to recall about Tricky Dick—and boy did that nickname say it all—is that, in his five-and-a-half years in office, he got a hell of a lot of things done, many of which unambiguously pushed our country forward in lasting, meaningful ways.  Apart from opening China to the West and fostering friendlier relations with the Soviet Union, Nixon became a partner in the environmental protection movement—signing the Clean Air Act and establishing the EPA—and was the first president to propose a universal government healthcare system that, nearly four decades later, would provide the basic framework for the Affordable Care Act—the 2010 bill that, as the aforementioned Lewis Black quipped, could’ve easily been called “Nixonicare.”

Nixon accomplished all of those commendable things and more, and we can’t pretend that he didn’t.  He was a ruthless, cold-hearted bastard, but by God, did he deliver.

The strategy of Oliver Stone’s movie—as embodied by its titanic lead performance by Anthony Hopkins—is to portray Nixon’s presidency as a grand Shakespearean tragedy, with its title character as a man who had the potential for everlasting greatness but was ultimately felled by his own flaws—in particular, his pathological habit of getting in his own way through bouts of self-pity and self-righteousness—weaknesses present in all national leaders, but rarely in such outrageously lethal doses.

Watching Nixon today, it becomes glaringly evident—if it weren’t already—how profoundly the worst instincts of Nixon mirror the worst instincts of Trump—not least the two men’s shared contempt for “elites” and any notion of a free press—with the latter president possessing even less self-control and self-awareness than the former, not to mention less intelligence and less expertise in anything even remotely to do with government.

If Nixon had a secret sauce—an X factor that enabled him to ascend great heights despite his deadly failings—it was the amoral political instincts that allowed him to personally profit from—and often stoke—divisions among different groups of people.  Domestically, this included the late-1960s racial tensions that helped him scare white people into voting for him in the first place.  Globally, this same habit was manifested in the rivalry between China and Russia, which Nixon was able to parlay into a set of mutually beneficial deals that America still enjoys to this day.

In other words, even Nixon’s finest moments were borne of his basest impulses.  The Machiavellian tactics that proved so effective in Beijing and Moscow originated from the same dark corner of the president’s brain that led him to brazenly interfere with the Watergate investigation and to use government money to cover it all up.  He was a crafty dealmaker and a common criminal, and you couldn’t have one without the other.

Which brings us to the most important—and most dangerous—lesson from the Nixon era:  Americans do not care if their president is corrupt, so long as his corruption redounds to the benefit of the public at large.  As a rule, if the economy is humming along and civil unrest is kept to a minimum, few citizens will bother to look very closely at any shenanigans that might be occurring in the executive branch.  As any pyramid scheme victim will tell you, why ask questions when everything is going so well?

Indeed, given the facts of history, it’s worth arguing that Nixon’s eventual (and richly deserved) downfall was as much a product of a depressed economy as of a sudden interest in rule of law by American voters.  While correlation does not necessarily prove causation, one can’t help but notice that, from early 1973 onward, Nixon’s free-falling approval rating tracked almost perfectly with the Dow Jones Industrial Average, suggesting that had the Watergate scandal not coincided with a general economic downturn—and, with it, a growing public disgust with Washington, D.C.—Nixon may well have rode out whatever allegations Congress and The Washington Post hurled at him throughout 1973 and 1974.  After all, he did win 49 states in the election of 1972.

Does this mean Donald Trump could commit a slew of impeachable offenses, yet remain in office for his entire term, provided the stock market doesn’t crash and the country doesn’t devolve into complete anarchy?

Yes, dear reader.  That’s exactly what it means.

If Nixon teaches us anything, it’s that the American presidency is just about the most secure job on planet Earth.  Despite all the malfeasance that has been committed over the last 228 years by most of the 44 men in that office, Nixon is still the only one to have departed prematurely without dying—and bear in mind that the “smoking gun” in Watergate only came to light as the result of an audio recording that Nixon himself made.  If those famous White House tapes didn’t exist—or were never publicly released—Nixon may well have stuck around until January 20, 1977, leading us to wonder if there’s anything the president of the United States cannot get away with, if he gives it the old college try.

With Donald Trump, that’s what we will continuously be finding out for the next 46 months, if not longer.  Having demonstrated, ad nauseam, that he cares about nothing but himself and is prepared to violate every political norm in the book in order to get what he wants, Trump is practically daring us to use the Constitution to yank him offstage, and if it turns out the American public doesn’t have the fortitude to pressure Congress into doing so, it is Trump who will have the last laugh, and we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.

Character Is Destiny

Donald Trump has been president for all of two weeks, yet already he has proved himself the most brazenly Nixonian person to ever sit in the Oval Office—Richard Nixon included.

How much of a paranoid megalomaniac is our new commander-in-chief?  Well, for starters, it took Nixon a full four-and-a-half years to dismiss his own attorney general for failing to carry out the president’s imperial agenda.  Trump?  He took care of that on Day 11.

There’s a classic saying, “History doesn’t repeat itself—but it rhymes.”  Of course, historians love to draw parallels between the past and the present in any case, but the truth is that some connections are so blindingly obvious that we needn’t even bring experts to the table.  We can do the rhyming ourselves, thank you very much.

At this absurdly premature juncture in the life of the new administration, it has become evident—to the shock of no one—that the Trump White House is destined to most resemble Nixon’s in both form and effect, and there may be no surer means of anticipating this West Wing’s machinations—good and bad, but mostly bad—than through a close study of the one that dissolved, oh-so-ignominiously, on August 9, 1974.

In light of recent events, we might as well begin with the Saturday Night Massacre.

In the fall of 1973, President Nixon was drowning in controversy about his role in the Watergate caper, thanks largely to the efforts of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox.  Suddenly, on October 20, Nixon decided he had had enough and ordered his attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to fire Cox ASAP.  Having promised to respect Cox’s independence, Richardson refused to comply and promptly resigned, as did his deputy shortly thereafter.

Once the dust settled and Cox was finally sacked by Solicitor General Robert Bork (yes, that Robert Bork), it became clear to every man, woman and child in America that the president of the United States was a crook and a scumbag—albeit a cartoonishly sloppy one—and so began the suddenly-inevitable march to impeachment that would end only with Nixon’s resignation in August of the following year.

What’s the lesson in all of this?  For my money, it’s that if the president feels he cannot do his job without depriving America’s chief law enforcement officer of his, something extraordinarily shady is afoot, and it’s only a matter of time before the public—and Congress—demands some manner of accountability.

Cut to the present day, and the constitutional (and humanitarian) crisis that Donald Trump pointlessly unleashed by banning all Syrian refugees from entering the U.S.—along with immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries—and then firing Acting Attorney General Sally Yates when she proclaimed the order illegal and instructed the Justice Department to ignore it.

For all that differentiates the Saturday Night Massacre from the Muslim ban and its aftermath, both events present a commander-in-chief with an utter, self-defeating contempt for basic rule of law and all institutional checks on his authority.  Just as Nixon believed he could sweep Watergate under the rug by canning its lead investigator, so does Trump think he can essentially wipe out an entire religion’s worth of immigrants from the United States by disappearing any Justice Department official who regards the First Amendment as constitutionally binding.

(Notice how Trump justified the firing of Yates by accusing her of “betrayal”—as if the attorney general’s loyalty to the president supersedes her loyalty to the law.)

Of course, the nice thing about the Constitution is that it exists whether or not the president believes in it (as Neil deGrasse Tyson didn’t quite say).  The trouble—as the nation learned so painfully with Nixon—is that justice can take an awfully long time to catch up to the president’s many dogged attempts to dodge it—especially if he has a gang of willing collaborators in Congress.

In the end, the reason Watergate exploded into a full-blown cataclysm was that Richard Nixon was a fundamentally rotten human being—a callous, cynical, friendless sociopath whose every move was calibrated for political gain and without even a passing consideration for the public good.  For all that he spoke about standing up for the common man, when push came to shove the only person he really gave a damn about—the only person he ever lifted a finger to protect—was Richard Nixon.

Does any of this sound familiar?  You bet your sweet bippy it does.  In the frightfully short time he’s been president, Trump has shown a remarkable knack for mimicking every one of Nixon’s faults—his vindictiveness, he contempt for the press, his insecurity, his dishonesty, his propensity for surrounding himself with racists and anti-Semites—while somehow skirting any redeeming qualities that might make his presidency tolerable, despite all of the above.

Indeed, to the extent that Trump is not the absolute spitting image of America’s all-time champion of corruption, he is demonstrably worse.  After all, Nixon was historically literate, intellectually curious and, from his experience as a congressman and vice president, highly knowledgeable about the nuts and bolts of Washington deal making.  He was a scoundrel, but a reasonably competent one with several major accomplishments to his name.

Can we expect Trump to achieve any sort of greatness in the teeth of his many weaknesses?  If these first two weeks are at all predictive of the next four years, I see no reason to think so.  Whereas Nixon was a gifted strategic thinker with a deep sense of history and geopolitics, Trump has over and over again professed a proud and stubborn ignorance of any matter that does not directly involve himself, and seems to derive all his information about a given subject from the last person he spoke to about it.

The Greeks had it right:  Character is destiny, and there’s just no coming back from a veritable avalanche of fatal flaws.  We can pray all we want that the president will suddenly discover the value of temperance, deliberation and any hint of public virtue, but we’d only be denying a truth that has been staring us in the face from the moment Trump announced himself as a figure of national consequence.  He is who he is, he will never get better, and our only hope is that this new national nightmare won’t last quite as long as the last one did.

Love the Bubble

There’s an old story that when Richard Nixon was re-elected president in 1972 by a score of 49 states to one, the legendary New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael remarked, “How could Nixon possibly have won?  Nobody I know voted for him!”

In truth, Kael said nothing of the sort.  Or rather, she said the exact opposite of the above, but because life is one long game of telephone, over time her words have been misinterpreted to within an inch of their life, so that now she comes off as an oblivious, left-wing stooge.  Oh well:  When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

All the same, those exact words have been bouncing around my head a lot these days, following the even more inexplicable election of an even more inappropriate candidate to that very same high office.  If the gist of Kael’s (fictional) lament is that Americans are so ideologically tribal that we’ve essentially walled ourselves off from those with whom we disagree, I’ve certainly done my part to make matters worse.

Indeed, months before Donald Trump became America’s president-elect, I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that, so far as I could tell, not a single person I’ve ever known was prepared to cast a vote for him.  Nor, for that matter, was any writer, elected official or celebrity in my intellectual orbit for whom I hold even a modicum of respect—including many conservatives who would normally support the Republican candidate as reflexively as I would support the Democrat.

Is this because, like Pauline Kael, I live inside an elitist, left-wing bubble and spent the entirety of 2016 subconsciously avoiding any views I would rather not hear?  Probably.

Is it also because Donald Trump was the most unserious and morally repugnant presidential candidate in a century, and therefore liable to turn off virtually any honest person who knows a vulgar charlatan when they see one?  Once again:  All signs point to yes.

Because those two things are equally true—not one more than the other—I’ve had real trouble feeling guilty about contributing to America’s increasing divide between Team Red and Team Blue.  I don’t doubt that if I put in more effort to reach out to folks in the heartland and elsewhere who do not share my values, I would likely emerge a fuller, more empathetic human being.  But there is no amount of ideological ecumenicalism that could negate all the terrible things Trump has said and that innumerable supporters of his have done:  He and they are as contemptible today as they’ve ever been—if not worse—and I have no desire to treat their particular views on race, religion and gender as if they are deserving of my respect.

Remember:  One’s politics are not some ingrained, immovable phenomenon like ethnicity or sexual orientation.  They are a choice.  They reflect how you think—as opposed to who you are—and that makes them fair game for the condemnation of others.

Which brings us—improbably enough—to Meryl Streep.

At Sunday’s Golden Globes, Streep chose to accept the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award by expressing her revulsion toward the president-elect and all that he represents—specifically, his disdain for multiculturalism and a free press, as well as his pathological inability to ever behave like a mature, compassionate adult.  Predictably, the crowd inside the Beverly Hilton went wild, while right-wingers online condemned Streep as an arrogant liberal nut.  And so it goes.

From a close reading of Streep’s remarks, we find that—apart from an unfair crack about mixed martial arts—she didn’t make a single statement that any decent person could possibly disagree with.  Every factual assertion was objectively correct (e.g., Trump is a bully, Hollywood actors have geographically diverse backgrounds), while every value judgment was so basic and obvious that a kindergartner could understand it (e.g., “disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence”).

Substantively, there was absolutely nothing controversial in Streep’s comments.  The uproar, then, was entirely a function of Streep’s status as Hollywood royalty—and, thus, a spokeswoman for the cultural left—which led those on the right to denounce her purely out of partisan vindictiveness, just the way congressional Republicans have opposed much of what President Obama has said because he said them.

That, my friends, is the real danger of living in a bubble:  Your ideological bias can become so overpowering that you decide, in advance, that those in the other bubble could never possibly say something true.  And that is the moment at which all good governance—nay, all good citizenship—ends.

I, for one, am entirely comfortable with the fact that, during the next four years, Donald Trump will occasionally say and do things of which I completely approve.  When that happens, I hope I will have the decency and integrity to say so.  All I ask in return is for everyone else—no matter which bubble they call home—to meet me halfway.

Appeasement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep Calm and Carry On

Well, you can’t win ’em all.

If history proves anything, it’s that America is an ideological pendulum, swinging back and forth every four-to-eight years, rarely allowing the same political party to rule the executive branch for more than two presidential terms in a row.  Indeed, only once since 1945 has the electorate diverged from this pattern—namely, when George H.W. Bush was elected in 1988 on the coattails of Ronald Reagan.

Considering how inherently divided our country is, there is a certain beauty to this arrangement, since it guarantees that no individual citizen will feel bitter toward—and underrepresented by—his or her government for more than eight years at a time.  It means that by age 30—if not sooner—every American will have felt both the joy of victory and the sting of defeat—and, more crucially, the experience of living, day-to-day, as a member of both the political majority and the political minority.

At 29, I can now affirm this theory from personal experience, having endured eight awful years of George W. Bush only to be enraptured by Barack Obama for nearly the same amount of time.  (If that isn’t the definition of “night and day,” I don’t know what is.)

Understanding that I can’t get everything I want every minute of every day—and that half my countrymen do not share many of my core values—I’ve had no illusions that I would always be as lucky in my commander-in-chief as I’ve been since January 2009.  It just wouldn’t be fair to everyone else.

So I can accept—intellectually, at least—that my least-favorite candidate prevailed in the 2016 presidential election, and that even though I didn’t vote for him myself, he will nonetheless be the leader of all of us and we’re just gonna have to deal with it.

I say this, of course, as a way of dancing around the giant, orange elephant in the hall, which is that the next president of the United States is arguably the least-qualified and most temperamentally inappropriate person to have ever sought the presidency, let alone win it, and his victory does absolutely nothing to change that fact.  From a cursory view of American political history, only Andrew Jackson comes to mind as someone whose violent temper and flamboyant flouting of basic social mores are equal to those of Donald Trump.  (We could also add Richard Nixon to the mix, although he did a slightly better job of hiding it.)

And yet—after the longest and most surreal night of any of our lifetimes—I am somehow reluctant today to re-litigate, for the gazillionth time, all the ways that Trump is a Category 5 disaster for the United States and the world.

Not that we shouldn’t start right up again tomorrow—or, at any rate, on January 20, 2017.  Of course we will continue to defend the principles of free expression, civil rights, diplomacy and all the rest against a vulgar demagogue who cares about nothing but himself.  Of course we will fight tooth-and-nail for the America we believe in against a man who represents its absolute antithesis.  Of course we will hold Trump to account for every appalling, stupid decision he makes over the next four years.  And of course we will not be intimidated by any and all efforts to suppress our Constitutional right to dissent.

But today I just want to rest, and reflect that democracy—still the greatest political system on Earth—requires yielding the floor to people with whom you violently disagree when the election results say that it’s their turn to take charge.

Maybe that’s a recklessly sanguine attitude for a liberal like me to strike.  Maybe I’m just so exhausted and relieved about the election being over that I can’t quite think straight.  Maybe—no, definitely—the fact that I’m white and male has partially insulated me from the raging existential panic and sadness that have swept across the entirety of Blue America throughout the day.  Maybe the magnitude of last night’s results, like a death in the family, hasn’t yet fully sunk in.  Or maybe I’m just a much more optimistic person than I realized and have faith that a President Trump will somehow not bring ruin to America’s most cherished institutions and dial our culture back to an era when life was absolutely miserable for all but rich, heterosexual white men.

To be sure, I can’t say I’ve ever felt more ashamed of my Y chromosome or my pale complexion, and I don’t begrudge my fellow liberals for refusing to play nice for even a moment, and/or for feeling that this might be the worst day of their lives and that the next four years will be one horrible nightmare after another.

But this morning I re-read David Wong’s October 12 article on the website Cracked, titled, “How Half of America Lost Its F**king Mind,” and really understood—maybe for the first time—the perspective of, say, a struggling working-class man from the Midwest who has become so alienated by his government—indeed, by his very society—that he felt he had no choice but to roll the dice with a human Molotov cocktail, buying into Trump’s sales pitch, “What the hell do you have to lose?”

I think that perspective is misguided—that Trump represents everything that blue-collar worker should fear and detest about both government and human nature in general—but I cannot deny the logic of it from the eyes of those who really have been stiffed by their representatives in Washington, D.C., and are resentful that liberal bastions on America’s coasts are getting all the attention and having all the fun.

Trump’s silent majority (or whatever he’s calling it) represents a group of Americans who have felt let down for far more than the eight years that most of us are used to, and while Trump is most certainly not the answer to their problems, his victory demonstrates how very wrong we elitist city folk were about what kind of country this really is.

Trump has forced us to reconsider things that we thought we knew for sure, and while none of those revelations are good—indeed, only in time will their badness become fully apparent—at least they have humbled us into recognizing that there is more than one way to see the world and that nothing can be taken for granted.

We liberals had our moment in the sun for the last eight years, and now it’s time for conservatives to have theirs.  Eventually, inevitably, the pendulum will swing back in our direction, and hopefully we’ll be there to seize it when it does.

Hillary Clinton for President

What is the absolute worst thing you could credibly say about Hillary Clinton?

That is, once you remove the sexism, paranoia and conspiracy-mongering that define—if not consume—so many of her most passionate, deranged critics, what is the central compelling argument against Hillary being elected president of the United States?

I don’t know about you, but I’d hazard that her pathological duplicity will always take the cake.  The view that Clinton is inherently dishonest—that she fudges the truth even when it serves no strategic purpose—has dogged her for the better part of a decade now, not least with me.  Ever since her 2008 primary fight with Barack Obama, I have consistently doubted Clinton’s basic integrity and judgment whenever she’s on the campaign trail, suspecting that her pursuit of power has become so all-encompassing—and her protective shell so thick and impenetrable—that she can’t help but look shady whenever she finds herself in a political and/or ethical bind.

Oftentimes this criticism is unfair.  The authoritative fact-checking site PolitiFact has characterized 51 percent of her public statements as “true” or “mostly true” and another 24 percent as “half-true,” meaning that she outright lies only about one-quarter of the time—a fairly impressive batting average for such a high-profile figure.

And yet I must say—based on what is directly in front of our noses—that, on multiple key occasions, she has more than lived up to those worst elements of her reputation.

Consider, for instance, the way she reacted to Bernie Sanders’s demands to release transcripts of her highly-lucrative speeches to Goldman Sachs.  Accused of being dangerously close to Wall Street and the big banks—and issued a direct challenge to prove otherwise—Hillary and her supporters’ two-pronged response was to insist that a) It wouldn’t be fair for only Clinton to expose herself in this way, and b) There’s nothing interesting in those speeches, anyhow.  Trust us.

Surely I don’t need to spell out why that combination of non-answers is such a glittering red flag for someone running as a champion of the working class?  If there really isn’t anything surprising or incriminating in those talks—if they are as innocuous as we are led to believe—what’s the justification for keeping them a secret?  What is the political benefit of stonewalling about something that—according to Hillary—is no big deal in the first place?

There’s nothing conspiratorial in looking at baldly evasive behavior and concluding the person in question is hiding something that, if it became known, would imperil his or her chances of being elected leader of the free world.  As a rule, public officials do not go out of their way to conceal information that makes them look good.

During the Watergate investigation in 1973-74, Richard Nixon attempted to keep his White House tapes private because he understood that once their contents became public, his presidency would be over.

However, what Nixon did not understand—and what Hillary Clinton and every other 21st century politician damn well should understand—is that everything becomes public sooner or later, which means that any concerted effort to suppress information is indicative of either extreme paranoia or actual wrongdoing.  While Clinton has never once been found guilty of the latter—despite the GOP’s best efforts—her clear and ongoing penchant for the former counts as a serious character flaw that, if she is elected, will inevitably cause unnecessary and utterly avoidable problems for her in the Oval Office.

(As a footnote:  Thanks to WikiLeaks, some of those speeches were released last month.  While they did, indeed, reveal a cordial relationship between Clinton and various Wall Street fat cats, they were evidently not damaging enough for the public to ultimately give a damn.)

Now, I’ve written about all this before—as has virtually every other political junkie on planet Earth.  I mention it again now as a reminder—to myself and others—that we all must enter Election Day 2016 with both eyes open.  The choice America makes today will have enormous global consequences—good ones, bad ones and everything in between—and each of us needs to assume a measure of personal responsibility for how we mark our ballots this time around.

My own model for how to do this is Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher whose “categorical imperative” theory of ethics intoned, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

In the context of a presidential election, I take Kant’s commandment to mean:  Cast your ballot on the assumption that it will actually determine the winner.  Presume every race—presidential, congressional, mayoral, etc.—is an exact tie the moment you enter the voting booth, and that you will be held personally liable for what happens thereafter.

In other words, don’t vote for merely symbolic reasons and/or to make yourself feel morally superior.  Don’t vote strictly as a form of protest against a system you don’t like, or based on an imagined, ideal version of America that doesn’t exist.

I wonder:  Of the 5 or 6 million people voting for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, how many really, truly want him to be the most powerful man on Earth?  How many of his supporters saw that interview with Chris Matthews, in which Johnson couldn’t name a single foreign head of state, and thought, “Yup, that’s the guy who should be in charge of the world’s indispensable superpower”?

None of them, I hope.  From his (admittedly rare) public appearances in national media, Johnson has revealed himself to be a total dunderhead on issues of major global importance, and had he gotten even a fraction of the coverage that the two major-party candidates have received, he likely would’ve come off as even more ignorant than he already has.  Had he opted to run in the Republican primaries instead, he would’ve been knocked out in a week.

In truth, Johnson isn’t a serious alternative to the two-party system so much as an idea of one.  As with all protest candidates, his supporters are voting for him because he can’t win, illustrating that third-party voting is the ultimate expression of cheerful abdication—a way of participating in the democratic process without having skin in the game once the dust has settled and the business of governing resumes.

It’s a pretty neat trick, when you think about it—the electoral equivalent of having your cake and eating it, too.  You can rest easy about having exercised your most elemental democratic right, while also smugly bragging, to yourself and your posterity, that you bear no responsibility—none, I say!—for the unholy mess that ensued when the rest of America didn’t follow your lead.

If that helps you sleep at night—makes you feel pure and clean and leading a life of high principle—I guess there’s nothing I can do to stop you.  I’m sure that in some parallel universe—or perhaps some past or future life—I, too, have drunk the alluring elixir of the Lost Cause.  Indeed, it was just last March that I voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries, and that’s gotta count for something.

But the fun, hopeful part of this election ended a long time ago, and I have since resigned myself to the depressing fact that the universe does not always give you precisely what you want every minute of every day.  And when your favorite dish is no longer on the menu, you have to suck it up and move on to Plan B.

In this case, Plan B involves a woman who understands the intricacies of Washington politics and the intrigues of international relations as deeply as anyone who has run for president in my lifetime.

Hillary Clinton will make many mistakes while in office, will alienate much of the country most of the time, will always be under a cloud of suspicion for behavior both real and imaginary, and will never be as naturally charismatic and hip as her predecessor and former rival, Barack Obama.

And yet—on this day, with the choices that are in front of us—Hillary Clinton is the last best hope for an America whose values I share.  Values like pluralism, multiculturalism, rule of law, religious freedom, sexual freedom, marriage equality, gender equality, racial equality, diplomacy, free trade, environmental protection, a free press, and the principle that healthcare should be a fundamental human right.

I voted for Hillary on October 24, the day the polls opened in my home state of Massachusetts.  It was not the most enthusiastic I’ve ever been at the finale of a presidential election.  However, given the alternatives, this was by far the easiest decision I’ve ever made in the sanctity of a voting booth.

I knew exactly what I was getting myself into.  I understood the risks, the drawbacks and all the horrible, terrifying unknowns.  But life itself is a risk, with every choice we make riddled with possible complications that we may or may not be able to anticipate.

And in the end, I find there is no amount of personal reticence toward Hillary Clinton that can outweigh the fact of two of the most powerful words in the English language:

“Madam President.”