Above the Law

Karl Marx famously intoned that history tends to repeat itself, “First as tragedy, then as farce.”  Upon last week’s death-by-suicide of noted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, who hanged himself in his Manhattan jail cell while awaiting trial—itself both a tragedy and a farce—I couldn’t help but wonder if the whole thing weren’t an ominous prelude to the ultimate fate of Donald Trump.

Not that Trump would ever kill himself, of course.  After all, suicide requires a level of nerve, resolve and concentration that our president plainly doesn’t possess.

What I mean is that, no matter how much comes to light about the crimes our 45th president has perpetrated against the republic—financial, political, sexual, moral—he will somehow find a way to skirt ultimate accountability for them, if only by not living long enough for the justice system to work its magic.

In the case of Epstein, you’ll recall, charges of gross sexual improprieties with underage girls were first leveled in 2005, resulting three years later in a jaw-droppingly lenient 13-month jail sentence whereby Epstein spent six days of each week in his own home.  It was only earlier this summer, following exhaustive sleuthing by Miami Herald reporter Julie Brown, that Epstein was treated as the pathological monster that he was, arrested and hauled off to the Metropolitan Correctional Center as details of his child sex-trafficking ring piled up like delinquency notices at the Massachusetts RMV (but that’s another story).

Finally, it appeared, this wretched specimen of a man—friend of presidents and princes, who successfully bought his way into high society, even after registering as a level-three sex offender—would face the full force of the American justice system, providing his countless victims at least a small measure of rectitude.

But that all ended last Saturday when Epstein wrapped a bedsheet around his neck and shuffled off to the great beyond.  He may well be burning in hell and his estate may soon be torn apart limb from limb, but Epstein himself will never be found guilty by a jury of his peers, will never be confronted by his accusers in open court, will never be able to confess or repent for his sins, nor to formally repay his debt to society by rotting away in prison, where he so richly belonged.

Death may or may not be a fate worse than life behind bars, but as far as we here on Earth are concerned, Jeffrey Epstein spent decades getting away with committing the most heinous crimes imaginable, and when the going finally got tough, he channeled his inner Groucho and said to the world, “Hello, I must be going.”

The arc of the moral universe is long, and sometimes it bends toward scumbags.

Such, I fear, is how it will go for Donald Trump:  He will continue to flout every law and convention he finds inconvenient; he will continue not to be held to account for them by the American legal system, Congress or the general public; and when his moment of reckoning finally arrives, he will slink off, ever-so-adroitly, to the great Taco Bell in the sky.

Following the Mueller report—and subsequent testimony of Robert Mueller himself—it has been firmly established that Trump cannot be indicted for any criminal offense while he is in office, thanks to a Justice Department policy asserting, in effect, that the leader of the free world is simply too preoccupied to adhere to such trivialities as the Constitution and rule of law. 

What’s more, should Trump manage to be re-elected next November, the statute of limitations for several of the crimes of which he stands accused will lapse before he returns to private life in January 2025.  And make no mistake:  Barring some major national catastrophe, he will be re-elected next November.

The fact is, historically-speaking, American presidents are like casinos:  In the end, the (White) House always wins.  Lest we forget, even Richard Nixon—the one commander-in-chief who was actually hounded from office ahead of schedule—was granted lifetime immunity from prosecution via a blanket pardon from his hand-picked successor, Gerald Ford.  If need be, does anyone in America believe Mike Pence would hesitate for a moment to take that precedent and run with it?

True:  Presidential pardons can only be granted for federal crimes, not state ones, which means investigations undertaken by, say, the New York attorney general would remain fair game should Trump be defeated next November and return to his Trump Tower penthouse, alive and in one piece, on January 20, 2021.

I don’t know about you, but that seems like a rather flimsy reed on which to hang all of one’s hopes for justice ever catching up to America’s worst president.  While we can bank all we want on the assumption that Trump will become the first incumbent in a quarter-century to be unceremoniously dumped by the electorate after four measly years, I find considerably more stock in the old I.F. Stone adage, “History is a tragedy, not a morality tale.” 

Trump does tragedy better than almost any living human being.  And that, among other things, is what makes his presidency such a farce.

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From the Inside Out

Last September, the New York Times published an op-ed, titled, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.”  Its author, described by the Times as “a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us,” opted to withhold his or her name and job title from readers, for what could only be described as obvious reasons.

This mysterious official, describing him or herself as a conservative who “want[s] the administration to succeed and think[s] that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous,” went on to describe a White House in which “the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic,” while insisting that “many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.”

Naturally, the column caused a sensation in the days following its publication, sending the White House into a white-hot panic and inducing every pundit in Washington, D.C., and on Twitter to breathlessly speculate on who the unnamed official could possibly be.

Eleven months after the fact, we still do not know the answer to that question.  Nor, so far as we can tell, does anyone in the Trump White House—a place, we might add, where the person in question may well still be working today.

Considering that we live with a media-political-industrial complex that generally leaks like a sieve and cannot keep a secret to save its life, it’s worth noting just how remarkable it is that this particular secret has been faithfully maintained for all this time.  As we sit here, the identity of the author of this explosive missive remains a mystery to all but a small handful of people, none of whom has spilled the beans—not even to the Times’ own reporters.  (The paper’s news and editorial pages are functionally separate entities.)

While I hadn’t paid much thought to this ongoing whodunit for quite some time, it all returned to me last week upon the resignation of Jon Huntsman, Jr., as U.S. ambassador to Russia—a position he has held since October 2017.

Huntsman, 59, is an interesting character in the American political milieu, having previously served as America’s chief diplomat in Singapore in the early 1990s under George H.W. Bush, and later as our man in Beijing under Barack Obama.  (Huntsman speaks fluent Mandarin.)  In between, he was elected governor of Utah twice—with approval ratings north of 80 percent at times—and in 2012 he even found time to run for president, albeit with extremely limited success.

As the most moderate of Republicans, Huntsman has long presented as something of an odd man out, having committed such party heresies as acknowledging the existence of global warming and the dignity of same-sex marriage.  Huntsman has always made a point of marching to the beat of his own drum, speaking freely—often curtly—about issues that every other member of his party would rather avoid.  (A tweet from 2011:  “To be clear.  I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming.  Call me crazy.”)

It’s a tribute to Huntsman’s intelligence and guile that he has accomplished as much as he has, considering how inhospitable the GOP must be to someone of his particular ilk.

Could he be the guy who wrote the Times op-ed?  It certainly wouldn’t be out of character.  Indeed, the more one thinks about it, the more sense it makes.

That was the feeling of William Saletan in Slate two days after the op-ed ran last fall.  In a piece titled, “The Obvious Suspect,” Saletan argued that when you combine the column’s overall style, tone and content, its (over)emphasis on U.S.-Russia relations, and Huntsman’s literal and ideological remove from the Trump White House and Trump himself, the case for Huntsman’s authorship more or less writes itself.  It persuaded me then, and it persuades me now.

Of course, all of this “evidence” is circumstantial and speculative at best, and in a way, it doesn’t really matter who wrote the damn thing in the first place.  The fact that somebody did—somebody who managed to slip into the Trump orbit only to announce to the entire world how dysfunctional and duplicitous the whole operation is—continues to be the primary, unalterable fact of the matter.

It begs the question:  How many of these democracy-loving, Trump-thwarting people are left inside the noxious tent?  Have they all since been purged and spit out, or are a fair number of them still lurking, protecting us from the president’s worst instincts on foreign and domestic issues alike?  Is it possible we’ve been living with a tethered, Diet Coke Trump all this time, with the unadulterated, full-flavored version still to come?

When it comes to the most amoral chief executive since Richard Nixon suggested bombing the Brookings Institution for sport, it’s worth noting that things can always get worse—which, in this case, they most assuredly will.  To the extent that not every individual currently working at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is an unqualified partisan stooge, the ratio has only grown more alarming with each passing week, as the administration hemorrhages competent, apolitical bureaucrats at a record clip with no signs of slowing down.

If the person who penned the Times op-ed is, indeed, still “a senior official in the Trump administration” (whatever that means), I think it is well past time for a sequel.  In the meantime, there is an election on November 3, 2020.  As a wise man once said, if you want something done, you just may need to do it yourself.

Biden His Time

Here’s a political question for us all:  Was the death of Beau Biden in May 2015 the most consequential event of the 2016 election?

Prior to being diagnosed with the brain cancer that would ultimately kill him, Beau Biden was a rising talent in the Democratic Party, serving as Delaware’s attorney general and generally assumed to be destined for higher office of one sort or another.

He was also the son of Joe Biden, then the sitting vice president and presumptive leading contender for the Oval Office in 2016.  By all accounts, the elder Biden was fully intent on a third run for president—following failed attempts in 1988 and 2008—and it was entirely due to the timing of his son’s illness and death that he decided to take a pass and effectively cede the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton.  And we know how well that went.

It’s the great political “What if?” of our time:  Would the 2016 election have ended differently had Joe Biden been in the mix?

With regards to the Democratic primaries, God only knows.  Maybe Hillary would’ve cleaned Biden’s clock—as both she and Barack Obama did in 2008.  Maybe he would’ve self-imploded through some embarrassing self-own, as he did in 1988 when it was found that he had plagiarized several of his campaign speeches.  Maybe he and Hillary would’ve fought to a protracted, bitter stalemate, allowing a third, outsider candidate (*cough* Bernie *cough*) to sneak past both of them.

But if Biden had somehow bested all his Democratic counterparts and emerged as the party’s nominee, could he have defeated Trump on November 8?

Answer:  Obviously yes.

Of course Biden could’ve defeated Trump in 2016.  Of course he could’ve flipped 80,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—i.e., the three states that wound up swinging the whole damn election.  Of course he could’ve appealed to a not-insignificant chunk of white, semi-deplorable working-class folk who otherwise find Democrats acutely irritating and Hillary positively intolerable.

Yes, in an alternate universe, Joe Biden could’ve been sworn in as the 45th president on January 20, 2017.

I say “could’ve,” not “would’ve,” since any counterfactual involves an infinite number of variables we can’t even begin to imagine.  What’s more, given the historically low occurrence of one political party winning three presidential elections in a row, it’s hardly inconceivable that Trump could’ve defeated any number of Democratic opponents in that strange moment of populist rage—not least the one most closely associated with the outgoing administration.

That said, hindsight strongly suggests Biden would’ve navigated the 2016 campaign more adroitly than Clinton did—if only from a lack of questionable e-mails or a sexual predator spouse—and may well have made the biggest mistake of his life in choosing not to take the plunge when he had the chance.

The relevant follow-up, then, is whether Biden’s apparently imminent entry into the 2020 primaries—for real this time!—will follow through on the untested promise of 2016 and serve as the de facto Obama restoration half the country has craved for the last two-plus years.  Or, instead, whether Biden’s moment really has come and gone, and the best he could do would be to sail off into retirement as a beloved (albeit slightly pervy) elder statesman.

In other words:  Having become as respected and endearing as almost any public figure in America today, why would Biden risk becoming a loser and a laughingstock yet again for the sake of one last roll in the hay?

The short answer is that Biden just really, really wants to be president.  Always has, apparently always will.  How badly, you ask?  Well, badly enough to address multiple recent allegations of unwanted physical contact by insisting that he regrets none of it and isn’t sorry about a damn thing.

And what about it?  On the subject of #MeToo-era sensitivity about men behaving predatorily, let’s not kid ourselves:  In a society where “Grab ‘em by the pussy” yielded support of 53 percent of white women, who’s to say “I enjoy smelling women’s hair but I’m also pro-choice” isn’t a winning route to 270 electoral votes?

The only certainty about the 2020 election is that no one has any idea how it will shake out—particularly those who claim they do.  Biden could defeat Trump in the sense that anyone could defeat Trump, although the converse is equally true.  Is he the most “electable” of all the Democrats in the field?  With 301 days until the first primary votes are cast, how much are you willing to wager that the word “electable” holds any meaning whatsoever?

I’ll leave you with this possibly-interesting piece of trivia:  The last non-incumbent former vice president to be elected commander-in-chief in his own right was Richard Nixon in 1968.  Care to guess how many times it happened before that?

Answer:  Zero.

Think Big

There’s a Greek adage—since become an American cliché—concerning the difference between a fox and a hedgehog:  “A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.”

If the Democratic Party wants to reclaim the White House in 2020, it would do well to nominate a hedgehog.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton ran for president as a fox—someone who had walked the halls of power for decades and seemingly knew everything about everything.  As a consequence—because she attempted to address every issue all at once, to be all things to all people—she came across as a woman who believed in nothing in particular other than becoming president.

By contrast, her opponent—one Donald J. Trump—ran as the know-nothing charlatan that he is—a man of appalling incuriosity and ignorance about the world around him—yet nonetheless captured a majority of the Electoral College on the strength of a single, clear and consistent message:  “I will make brown people go away.”  (In time, this would be shortened to “Make America Great Again.”)

If you want to know the story of the 2016 campaign, it’s that the candidate who knew many things was defeated by the candidate who knew (or at least said) one big thing.  My advice to the Democrats’ eventual nominee next year:  Find one big thing on which to campaign, and stick with it.

For all his bumbling and rambling in his official duties as chief executive, Donald Trump understands the power in establishing a singular, unified worldview and funneling all of his major declarations and acts toward the implementation thereof. 

Trump may careen incoherently from one policy bungle to another—ever on the defensive against a media-industrial complex that he views as an existential threat to his presidency—but his One Big Idea has remained the same:  That is, the notion that America has been taken advantage of for decades by its counterparts in Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East—economically and militarily—and it’s high time the United States stand up for itself by withdrawing most of its troops, tearing up most of its treaties and, of course, building a Big Beautiful Wall on the border with its neighbors to the south.

We can argue about the wisdom of the 21st century’s leading superpower effectively withdrawing from the world stage to tend to its own private concerns—and, indeed, about whether such a thing is even possible—but we can’t deny the elemental appeal of a commander-in-chief who knows exactly what he wants for his country—particularly regarding its foreign policy—and is unrelenting in his desire to effectuate it, up to and including when public support turns against him.

Obviously, Trump’s bluster on this front has far outpaced his capacity for generating results—as would be expected of a loud-mouthed businessman who once managed to bankrupt a casino.

Nonetheless, there is little doubt that Trump’s singlemindedness about isolating the United States from the global community scratched a primal itch in millions of voters who wanted to send an angry message to Washington, D.C., and who regard Trump as a faithful vessel for their (self-)righteous ire.  His stick-to-itiveness vis-à-vis “America first!” carried him over the finish line on November 8, 2016, and is the one thing guaranteeing that 30-odd percent of the electorate will never, ever leave his side.  In the broadest possible sense, they always know where he stands and, rightly or wrongly, they believe he stands with them.

In 2020—as in 2018—it will be the left’s turn to vent its outrage at the incumbent administration and chart its own course forward, and the worst the Democrats could possibly do is to nominate a candidate who is timid and circumspect about saying what he or she truly believes—or worse, who says too much about too many different things, resulting in a muddled message that does nothing to inspire those who yearn to be inspired—as perhaps they haven’t been since the “Yes We Can” days of 2008.

Among the more amusing side stories from 2016 was that, in preparing for the general election, Hillary Clinton and her aides entertained at least 84 possible slogans before ultimately settling on “Stronger Together”—a fact that illustrates both how seriously the campaign took the concept of self-branding and how woefully unfocused the whole operation was, thematically-speaking.  For all her experience and expertise as a public official, Hillary could never quite explain why she, of all people, should be president of the United States—particularly not in an easy-to-remember phrase that could fit easily on a bumper sticker or a red hat.

It all comes down to the elemental question, “Why do you want to be president?”  Ted Kennedy famously couldn’t summon a coherent answer in 1980, effectively strangling his own insurgent candidacy in its crib.  In truth, very few candidates in the intervening decades have done much better, typically using the query as an opportunity for a vague laundry list of issues rather than a sweeping declaration of principle.

It shouldn’t be too much to ask that a person who presumes to become the most powerful human being on Earth at least pretend to believe in something beyond personal wish-fulfillment.  As no less than Richard Nixon observed, those who run for high office can be divided into two groups:  Those who want to do big things, and those who want to be big people.  Of course, the former can (and generally does) lead to the latter.  Wouldn’t it be nice if America’s next president understood that it doesn’t work the other way around?

Trump Goes to Korea

So what happens if Donald Trump solves North Korea?  What happens if the economy continues to hum along without crashing?  What happens if Robert Mueller’s investigation returns no smoking gun?

What happens, in other words, if Donald Trump wins?  And what happens—heaven forbid!—if America wins along with him?

It’s a thought few liberals have deigned to contemplate seriously for any length of time, having convinced themselves Trump is the most singularly bumbling, ineffectual chief executive in recent decades—a man whose modus operandi remains (to quote Benjamin Wittes) “malevolence tempered by incompetence.”

After 15 months on the job, the incompetence speaks for itself—on a daily basis, in increasingly jaw-dropping ways—as, for that matter, does the malevolence, be it through Trump’s contempt for institutions like the press and the Justice Department or through executive actions against Muslims, immigrants or planet Earth itself.

What the left (and much of the right) hasn’t counted on, however, is the prospect that, in between all the bloopers, boners and practical jokes, Trump would stumble his way into some genuine achievements, succeeding both despite and because of the character traits that made him so undesirable—and unelectable—in the first place.

It’s easy enough to call President Trump a liar and a crook—not to mention an adulterer, a racist and a third-rate conman.  Just ask Michelle Wolf.

Far more compelling than Trump’s obvious faults are his less-than-obvious strengths, of which the most pertinent—at the moment, anyway—is his ability to so freak out America’s enemies that they decide bargaining with him might be preferable to war.

Such appears to be the case with Kim Jong-un, the murderous dictator of North Korea who surprised just about everybody this month by meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, during which the two leaders floated the idea of formally ending the Korean War, among other extremely promising developments.

This came shortly after Kim’s equally-surprising overture to Trump, who, with nary a moment’s hesitation, agreed to a similarly bilateral summit at some point in the near future, presumably to reconcile Kim’s nuclear ambitions with Trump’s threats to obliterate North Korea—“with fire and fury like the world has never seen”—should those ambitions be realized.

At this tentative juncture, we cannot help but wonder:  Did Trump’s bluster lure Kim to the negotiating table, as no previous U.S. strategy did?  Was this all a modern-day version of Richard Nixon’s “madman theory” at work—an elaborate game of “good cop, bad cop” with Trump playing both roles?  Will these extraordinary meetings produce a durable, long-term settlement that all sides can live with?  And if so, will Trump deserve credit as a great—albeit unorthodox—statesman and peacemaker?

Admittedly, by asking these sorts of questions, we are anticipating future events that may never materialize, with a cockeyed optimism that may be entirely without merit.  Amidst all the positive activity on the Korean Peninsula, we should never forget Donald Trump’s bottomless, lifelong capacity to get in his own way, coupled with his rank inexperience in all manner of foreign policy.  And that’s before factoring in Kim Jong-un, who presumably has his own nefarious agenda and may well be playing Trump and Moon for fools.

And yet—and yet, I say!—there has undoubtedly been enough forward movement with North Korea to give us a modicum of hope that a nuclear exchange is not the imminent danger it was during, say, the summer of 2017.  We owe it to ourselves—and to civilization as a whole—to root for some kind of accommodation that averts war and establishes a relatively stable relationship between the Kim regime and the rest of the world.  I haven’t the slightest idea what that deal might look like—nor, it would appear, does anyone else—but then history often hinges on moments that seem impossible until they suddenly become inevitable.  Just ask President Hillary Clinton.

Supposing the Korean standoff ends well and Trump emerges as the grand dealmaker he’s always claimed himself to be, what, pray tell, are American liberals to do with themselves?  More broadly, what would a truly empowered—and truly successful—President Trump mean for America as a whole?

Most likely, in my estimation, it would mean Nixon 2.0.:  A profound scumbag who, through luck and pluck, lodges several major policy breakthroughs but nonetheless remains a scumbag and is eventually brought down by the weight of his own corruption.

It certainly has a nice, odd symmetry to it:  Nixon goes to China, Trump goes to Korea.  Nixon is investigated for covering up interference in a presidential election, Trump is investigated for the same.  Nixon is forced to resign after the discovery of incriminating tape recordings.  And Trump…well, we’ll always have Twitter.

The essential thing, in any case, is to keep a sufficiently open mind to be able to hold two opposing ideas in your head at the same time—in this case, the idea that Donald Trump is both a wretched human being and, potentially—indeed, perhaps only on this one occasion—the right man in the right place at the right time.

In other words, we must be prepared to give credit where credit is due, knowing all the while there will always be a fresh new pile of blame just around the corner.

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.

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.