Darkness on the Edge of Town

On the evening of November 5, 1980, a 31-year-old rock ‘n’ roller in a sweaty white shirt stood at a microphone in Tempe, Arizona, and ominously intoned to a crowd of thousands, “I don’t know what you guys think about what happened last night, but I think it’s pretty frightening.”

With that, he launched into one of his signature fist-pounding anthems, whose opening lines declare:

Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland

Got a head-on collision smashin’ in my guts, man

I’m caught in a crossfire that I don’t understand

The man on the stage was Bruce Springsteen, and the previous day’s “what happened” was the election of Ronald Reagan as the 40th president of the United States.  The song, “Badlands,” was written and recorded two years prior, but its driving rhythm section and portentous lyrics seemed to capture the national mood as no other track could—at least among the American left.  It was as though Bruce had been saving it up for just the right moment.  As it turned out, the dawn of Reaganism was it.

Indeed, the prince of the Jersey Shore would spend the balance of the ensuing decade fortifying his reputation as an apostle of blue-collar America—the embodiment of the desperate, unwashed workingmen who felt betrayed and abandoned by their country and government in favor of the upper 1 percent.  In this milieu, the Reagan administration, with its tax-cutting, “trickle-down” economics, would, in short order, become Enemy No. 1.

From that concert in Tempe onward, Springsteen’s whole musical identity assumed a more political bent, his songs coming to reflect the times as much as the dreams and inner torment of the artist himself.  Where Bruce’s earlier work breezily spoke of young love on the boardwalk and hemi-powered drones screaming down the boulevard, by 1978 he was already losing faith in the institutions that had raised him—the government, the social compact, his family—and increasingly threaded this perceived societal drift into otherwise personal tales of love, hatred, anxiety and midnight drag racing.  (A typical lyric from that time:  “You’re born with nothing / and better off that way / soon as you’ve got something they send / someone to try and take it away.”)

Because this heightened social awareness and unease coincided with the Reagan Revolution—and also because of his open advocacy for such people as John Kerry, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—Springsteen has long (and rightly) been associated with the Democratic Party and its base.  So it came as something of a shock for me when I recently re-listened—for, say, the dozenth time—to Springsteen’s 1982 album, Nebraska, and found that, song-for-song—in some cases, like-for-line—the record seemed to speak directly to the plight of the prototypical Trump voter in 2016.  Contained in those tracks—and, by implication, in the mind of the man who wrote them—are most (if not all) of the fears, disappointments and anger that drove millions of bitter, hardworking citizens—many of whom voted for Obama twice—to turn to Donald Trump as the last best hope to save the soul of their beloved, beleaguered country.  In many ways, Springsteen’s Nebraska—35 years old in September—serves as their voice.

You could begin with the album’s title track, which recounts the (true) story of a Bonnie and Clyde-like duo who senselessly murdered their way across the Midwest in the 1950s, only to conclude, “They wanted to know why I did what I did / well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”  Immediately following is “Atlantic City”—a concert staple to this day—whose protagonist bemoans, “I got a job and tried to put my money away / but I got debts that no honest man can pay.”  Worse still, in “Johnny 99,” we learn, “They closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late that month / Ralph went out lookin’ for a job / but he couldn’t find none.”  And so forth.

What is most consistent, and ominous, in these tracks—today and in their original context—is how inexorably the weight of economic despair eventuates in violence.  Along with the aimless, homicidal couple in the opener (“Me and her went for a ride, sir / and ten innocent people died”), the man in “Atlantic City” is forced to join the mob to make ends meet (“Last night I met this guy / and I’m gonna do a little favor for him”), while Ralph, aka Johnny 99, knocks off a town clerk in a drunken rage, later pleading to a judge, “The bank was holdin’ my mortgage / and they were gonna take my house away / Now I ain’t sayin’ that makes me an innocent man / But it was more ‘n all this that put that gun in my hand.”

Indeed, experience teaches us that certain acts of violence spring purely from desperation, hunger and a general lack of good options in life, and the ordeal of the 2016 election did little to disabuse us of this notion.

To wit:  It is a matter of public record that the core of Donald Trump’s minions viewed themselves (rightly or wrongly) as the most economically stretched class of people in a generation—folks without jobs, prospects or any real political power—and that Trump’s campaign, in turn, was the most physically intimidating in modern times, with scores of campaign rallies descending into fist fights, the aggressors egged on by the candidate himself, who bellowed, “If you see somebody with a tomato, knock the crap out of them,” adding, “I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.”  (He didn’t, of course.)

Certainly nothing good can come from lashing out at your own society in such an ugly way.  Yet Nebraska does not look down on its characters when they commit despicable acts.  Bleak as it is, the album is fundamentally an exercise in empathy for those whose circumstances have led them to feel that a life of crime is the only choice they have left.  In their shoes, are we so sure that we wouldn’t behave the same way?

Encouragingly, perhaps, Springsteen himself has not changed his view on this one whit.  In an interview with Rolling Stone last October—during which he couldn’t summon a single positive word for the president-to-be—he posited, “I believe there’s a price being paid for not addressing the real cost of the deindustrialization and globalization that has occurred in the United States for the past 35, 40 years, and how it’s deeply affected people’s lives and deeply hurt people to where they want someone who says they have a solution.  And Trump’s thing is simple answers to very complex problems. […] And that can be very appealing.”  Asked if he is “surprised” to learn that the man who inspired his 1995 song “Youngstown”—an elegy to the American steel industry—is now a Trump supporter, Bruce responded, “Not really.”

Trump, he seems to agree, is what David Brooks once characterized as “the wrong answer to the right question.”

Which is all to say that Springsteen understood the American electorate in 2016 better than the Democratic Party—as, in their own way, did the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—and that unless the party makes a more honest reckoning with its relationship to America’s basket of deplorables, it will be quite some time before Democrats win back the House, the Senate, the presidency and the Supreme Court.

If you’ve lost Springsteen, you’ve lost America.

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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.

What Might Have Been

During the second debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, journalist Jeff Greenfield tweeted, “All year, I’ve told people who asked about an alternate history for 2016: ‘This IS the alternate history.’”

Yes, indeed.  And as this bizarro fever dream lurches toward its conclusion—likely in the form of a smashing Clinton victory—it’s hard not to fantasize about what might have been.  To mentally play out the 2016 election in a plane of reality devoid of Clinton and/or Trump.

To be sure, Americans have wistfully indulged in “What if?” scenarios for pretty much every election in history—if not every major news event, period—understanding, as we do, that one tiny hiccup in the space-time continuum can have a transformative effect on the course of human events.  Since reality itself is unknowable until it becomes known—and sometimes not even then—alternate reality has an otherworldly allure tailor-made for those who’ve had it up to here with the truth and would rather reside in the warm, reassuring embrace of pure fiction.

In 2016, that describes just about everybody, doesn’t it?

Let us begin, then, with Bernie Sanders and his vision for a more economically egalitarian way of life.  Had he somehow prevailed in the Democratic primaries—say, by attracting more African-American voters or by more aggressively attacking Hillary’s most vulnerable policy positions—would his general election campaign against Trump have been measurably different from Clinton’s?

Damn straight, it would.  For all the substantive agreement between the two Democratic candidates, Sanders would’ve presented as an entirely different species of opponent for his Republican counterpart—a simpler target in some ways, while a considerably more vexing one in others.

Most conspicuously, perhaps—particularly in light of recent events—Trump could not credibly have attacked Sanders on issues of character.  Unlike Hillary, Bernie hasn’t a whiff of scandal or corruption about him; he has rarely, if ever, altered his views for political expedience; he has not engaged in “pay-to-play” shenanigans with lobbyists or big banks; and he has not, in any case, been a party to the so-called “rigged” system that both he and Trump have vowed to fix.

As well, for all his theatricality in front of a crowd, Sanders is an utterly decent and morally serious person who went to extraordinary lengths to avoid a dirty primary fight against Hillary and presumably would’ve tried to comport himself similarly against Trump.  What’s more, even if he had chastised Trump for all the terrible things he’s said over the years—as he has been wont to do as Hillary’s loyal surrogate—what exactly would Trump have lobbed back in response?  We all know how much the Donald depends on projection to get his message across, but would anyone really have bought into the idea (if Trump floated it) that Bernie Sanders is a “liar” and a “bigot,” or that he has “tremendous hate in [his] heart”?

In other words, Trump’s attacks on Bernie would’ve come from an entirely different playbook from the ones he’s using on Hillary, and our imagination can only get us so far in picturing just how that might’ve panned out.  In all likelihood, as a 25-year far-left member of Congress, Sanders would’ve been painted as a feckless insider and/or an extremist loony toon—a line of attack that would surely be more effective from a messenger who is not, himself, a raging, unprincipled nut job.

In short:  If the last few months have taught us anything, it’s that Trump would’ve found a way to disqualify himself regardless of his Democratic opponent.  He can’t help it:  He is just too good at being bad.

But what if we removed Trump from the equation altogether?  What if Republican primary voters hadn’t gone totally insane last spring and, instead, nominated a comparatively normal (i.e. electable) candidate like Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush?

In other words, what if this election made any sense at all?

For the answer to that, we would do well to consult history, beginning with this rather remarkable piece of data:  Since 1945, 11 different men have been elected commander-in-chief, and of those 11, only one was picked to succeed a member of his own political party.  Except for 1988, when Republican George H.W. Bush took over for Republican Ronald Reagan, every presidential transition since the end of World War II that was not triggered by the president’s death or resignation involved a switch from a Democrat to a Republican, or vice versa.

If there is a central fact about the American electorate, it’s the desire to throw the bums out as soon as their natural term is up.  Although we have lately made a habit of re-electing the incumbent—itself something of a historical anomaly—we have shown an innate aversion to having a single party control the executive branch for more than eight years at a time—an inclination that explains why virtually every successful candidate in modern history has run on a platform of “change.”

Which is all to say that a Republican should’ve been elected president in 2016—or, barring that, that the race should’ve at least been quite close.  With 26 days until the polls close (thanks to early voting, many have already opened), it appears that neither of those things will happen, and the explanation for this really can be boiled down to two words:  Donald Trump.

In a Trump-less universe, could Rubio or Bush—or John Kasich or Chris Christie—have defeated Clinton?  Sure, why not?  All the anti-establishment momentum would’ve been in his favor, Clinton’s own shortcomings would’ve remained glaringly evident to all, and—most obviously—none of those other candidates (except perhaps Christie) would’ve been so completely crushed by the weight of his own ego.

As we learned in 2008, Hillary Clinton is hardly an infallible candidate.  For all her knowledge and experience, she can always be relied upon to get in her own proverbial way by being needlessly secretive, paranoid and/or outright dishonest.  It was her unbelievable good fortune to be pitted against the most cartoonishly unqualified opponent on planet Earth, and the fact that this election wasn’t over months ago is a testament to how much trouble she might’ve found herself in against a Republican foe who actually took this job seriously and wasn’t busy fighting off multiple accusations of sexual assault.

So if we are to write an alternate history of the 2016 campaign—or, as Jeff Greenfield would have it, the non-alternate history—we would require either a version of Donald Trump that was everything the current version is not, or a Republican electorate with the basic common sense not to tether itself to an unelectable thug.

Like I said:  Fantasy.

Pleading the 22nd

Let’s be honest:  Deep down, we all knew this election would eventually just be about sex.  And now that we’ve finally reached that point, the only question is why it took so damned long.

There certainly wasn’t any way around it.  In a race between a serial adulterer and the wife of an accused rapist, it was foolhardy to think we’d make it all the way to November without mentioning either one, especially when the first of those candidates has absolutely no filter between his brain and his mouth.

Toward the end of last Monday’s debate, Donald Trump triumphantly declared, “I was going to say something extremely rough to Hillary, to her family, and I said to myself, ‘I can’t do it.  I just can’t do it.  It’s inappropriate.  It’s not nice.’”

And then, on Friday, he did it.  That is, he accused Hillary Clinton of “enabling” her husband to abuse various women while he was president and for “attacking” the reputations of those women after the fact.  Media and the internet being what they are, Trump’s charges were immediately turned right around vis-à-vis his own history of sleeping with women who are not his wife and for generally being a pervy little creep his entire adult life.  To this obvious point, Trump responded the only way he knows how:  By making himself the exception to his own rule, saying, “I don’t talk about it.”

To recap, then:  According to the Donald, cheating on your spouse is politically irrelevant, but being that same spouse disqualifies you from being president.  And the mystery of Trump’s weak support among women continues.

Not to change the subject on you, but this seems like an opportune moment to rethink the 22nd Amendment, which prohibits any president from serving more than two terms.  Passed in 1947 by a Republican Congress annoyed with Franklin Roosevelt’s precedent-breaking four electoral victories, the amendment has scrambled history in ways far more consequential than we typically appreciate—more often than not, I suspect, for the worse.

Since the 22nd Amendment went into effect in 1951, five U.S. presidents have won (and served) two full terms in office, only to be denied a chance at a third.  Of those five, only George W. Bush entered his final year with an approval rating well below 50 percent, meaning that the remaining four—Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton and Obama—had every reason to run again, if they so chose.  Considering how beloved that quartet of leaders were in their respective times—and how much each of them seemed to relish the gig while it lasted—who’s to say that at least one of them wouldn’t have taken his chances with the electorate in pursuit of Term Number Three?

Think of it:  Eisenhower vs. Kennedy in 1960.  Reagan vs. Dukakis in 1988.  Clinton vs. George W. Bush in 2000.  Obama vs. Trump in 2016.

That last matchup is almost too delicious to pass up, and one can’t help but wonder how different this year would’ve been if Democrats had gotten what they truly wanted:  Another four years of Barack Obama.  For all that Obama has done to annoy his liberal base over the last eight years—particularly on foreign policy, civil liberties and Wall Street—the American left is nonetheless in general agreement that Obama’s presidency has been a net-plus for humanity—not least in comparison to his immediate predecessor—and were he eligible to run for a third term, not even Hillary Clinton would stand in his way.

More to the point:  If the Democrats re-nominated Obama and the Republicans still nominated Trump, how could Obama possibly lose?

We know how savagely Obama can cut Trump down to size—and how much he thrills in doing so.  We know what a happy-go-lucky campaigner he is and how dazzlingly he can command a crowd.  On policy, he and Hillary are sufficiently interchangeable that their primary fight in 2008 essentially boiled down to character.  And speaking of character….well, regardless of whether the allegations about Clinton’s secrecy and paranoia are warranted, Obama has faced no such charges in any way, shape or form.  He may be controversial on policy, but on personal morality he is beyond reproach.

This doesn’t mean that Hillary can’t still pull this thing out, or that she wouldn’t make a perfectly decent commander-in-chief.  And it certainly doesn’t mean that an Obama-Trump race wouldn’t feature a thousand and one glittering distractions, yielding a much more competitive race than anyone could’ve thought possible.

All the same, there’s no way around the fact that Hillary’s proverbial “baggage” is the only thing preventing the 2016 election from being something close to a cakewalk.  Her penchant for concealing the truth has made Trump’s own dishonestly slightly more palatable, while her de facto tolerance for her husband’s philandering has—in the minds of our dumb electorate—all but neutralized the flagrant and appalling misogyny of her cynical, vacuous opponent.

It would be nice if a greater number of Americans could distinguish unscrupulousness from outright villainy, or could appreciate the difference between trashing your husband’s mistresses and trashing every woman you’ve ever met.

Then again, it would also be nice to live in a country that overwhelmingly recognized Donald Trump as the greedy, selfish, emotionally stunted man-child that he is, and thus never nominated him for president in the first place.

But apparently that country is unavailable this year, so instead we have to pretend that all sexual and ethical peccadilloes are created equal and that it makes total effing sense that the party of “family values” and “Christian conservatives” would ally with—and defend—a twice-divorced beauty pageant guru who cusses like a sailor and refers to the communion wafer as “my little cracker.”

As a non-Republican, I of course find this hilarious, just as I assume every true blue conservative finds it repulsive.  For all that is wrong with the Democratic Party as a political organization, it nonetheless always manages to nominate for president an intelligent, clever, empathetic, even-tempered public servant; never in my lifetime has it succumbed to someone like Donald Trump—a fact that will have to serve as silver lining for the dumb rule that prevents any party from simply nominating the same guy over and over again until we’re actually sick of him.

Continuity with Change

Out there in the über-liberal, anti-Hillary, Bernie Bro corner of the interwebs, the following challenge has been posed:

“Convince me to vote for Hillary Clinton without mentioning Donald Trump.”

As with so much else about the #NeverHillary crowd, it is unclear whether the above is a genuine, good-faith inquiry or just a snarky dig at Clinton’s supporters’ supposed moral bankruptcy.

It’s a rather bizarre question, in any case.  If it’s meant as pure rhetoric—a way of pointing out how the leading justification for Clinton’s presidency is that it would prevent a Trump presidency—then we can take the point while also acknowledging its childish assumption that competing candidates could ever be judged independently of each other—as if choosing one option didn’t also mean rejecting the other.

However, if the question is meant seriously, then it’s just a stupid question.

Can liberals identify reasons to elect Clinton that don’t involve her not being Donald Trump, you ask?  Are there really other liberals who think the answer is “no”?

There are dozens of ways to support Hillary’s candidacy without regard to her Republican opponent.  Many of them are identical to those that led millions of future Bernie Bros to support Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012—and, naturally, many of the same traits also applied to Bernie Sanders during this year’s primaries.  There are also reasons to endorse her that are sui generis, applicable to her and her alone.

Broadly speaking, Hillary is an enthusiastic subscriber to virtually the entire Democratic Party platform—thus, anyone in ideological agreement with Democratic principles is, by definition, in general alignment with Clinton on what we sometimes refer to as “the issues.”

For instance, she would clearly support and defend—and, if we’re lucky, expand and streamline—the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, overruling every last congressional attempt to kill it once and for all.

She would affirm the recently-established right of any two consenting adults to get married, have children and live happily ever after, while also ensuring those same people cannot be fired or otherwise discriminated against for unconstitutional reasons.

She would continue President Obama’s fight against global warming and his attempts to make the country more energy independent.

She would pledge solidarity with Muslims and other religious minorities against persecution by violent Christian extremists.

She would shape a Supreme Court that would vote in favor of a multitude of issues that liberals care passionately about—voting rights, women’s rights, transgender rights, you name it.

She would try to do something about gun control and—if the stars are aligned just right—maybe even succeed.

In addition to being the first female chief executive, she would appoint a record number of women to her cabinet, not to mention a boatload of ethnic and racial minorities spread throughout the executive branch, thereby inspiring countless young people to consider public service for the first time in their lives.

She would hold meetings and actually listen to what the other people have to say.

She would forge relationships with every last member of Congress, knowing that someday she might need their support for something important.

Long story short, she would essentially be a slightly more mature—but slightly less exciting—version of Barack Obama.  In effect, she would represent Obama’s third term in office, for better and for worse.  That’s the argument for electing her president.  Take it or leave it.

Now, it’s true enough that Clinton herself has never explicitly said, “Vote for me, Obama’s third term!”  However, it doesn’t require a great deal of reading between the lines to grasp the subtext of all of her major policy positions, which can be summed up as, “If you’ve enjoyed life under Obama, you’ll enjoy it under me.”

I realize this is an inherently uninspiring message—a tacit admission that things probably aren’t going to change very much over the next four-to-eight years—but it’s also admirably fresh and realistic—a means of subtly lowering our expectations to a level at which we might actually want to re-elect her four years hence.

Every president in history has needed to confront the gap between what he thinks he can accomplish and what he can actually accomplish, and Hillary Clinton stands apart from most previous candidates in her deep understanding of this fact.  Among the many differences between her and Donald Trump—a man whom, you’ll note, I haven’t mentioned in quite some time—is that Trump apparently thinks a president can do literally anything he wants, while Clinton knows full well that the job is extraordinarily limiting and depends on a great deal of teamwork to get anything meaningful accomplished.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy intoned to the American people, “Let us begin.”  When Lyndon Johnson succeeded Kennedy in November 1963—albeit under unusual circumstances—he said, “Let us continue.”  That’s the dynamic between Obama and Clinton:  They are so compatible in their basic worldview and value systems that we can expect an exceptionally smooth transition from one to the other (this time without an assassination in between).

I don’t know about you, but I have quite enjoyed the Obama administration.  It has followed through on a plethora of progressive actions that were utterly lacking under George W. Bush, and I can say unequivocally that my own personal corner of America is infinitely better off now than it was eight years ago.  If Obama were eligible to run for a third term, I would vote for him a third time.

But he can’t, so I’ll settle with Hillary, instead.

Many Republicans will be familiar with this sense of depleted enthusiasm, since they elected George H.W. Bush in 1988 by pretending he was Ronald Reagan, an incumbent who was term-limited after eight years of making many conservatives’ dreams come true.  In the end, Bush proved a capable but ultimately lackluster follow-up act, keeping some promises while breaking others, and is today admired as much by liberals as by conservatives.

History could easily be in the process of repeating itself on the other side of the ideological spectrum, and that is roughly what we should expect.  Hillary Clinton has drifted to the left on numerous issues as of late, but the intractability of Congress and Clinton’s own cautiousness will surely limit the reach of her administration’s most ambitious goals, resulting in exactly what her most clear-eyed advocates have promised:  Modest, gradual progress through compromise—a variation of Selina Meyer’s campaign slogan in Veep, “Continuity with Change.”

Sounds pretty good to me.

Losers Never Win

Is this it, folks?  Is this how the 2016 election will end?  Not with a bang, but with a blowout?

Crunching the numbers from the most recent batch of opinion polls, we find that Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump in the race for president by eight percentage points nationwide.  Breaking it down state-by-state—as Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight continues to do better than any other human—it appears that, if the election were held today, Clinton would defeat Trump in the Electoral College by a score of 364-174—the largest victory since Bill Clinton beat Bob Dole in 1996.  Specifically, Hillary would win every state Barack Obama won in 2012, plus North Carolina, Arizona and Georgia—the last of which no Democratic candidate has won since 1992.

Again, that’s all based on the numbers today.  If we based it on the numbers yesterday, Clinton would win North Carolina but not Arizona or Georgia.  If we backed up a few days more, she would still prevail, but only by a hair.

From this, we can draw one of two completely different conclusions:  Either a) today’s polls are too hyperactive to be taken seriously three months before the fact, or b) Clinton’s numbers will continue to rise—and Trump’s will continue to fall—resulting in the most lopsided presidential election result since Ronald Reagan won 49 states in 1984.

Deep down, everyone knows the correct answer is “a.”  Even if the polls themselves can be taken at face value—a dubious proposition, at best—an awful lot of nonsense can occur over the next 91 days—particularly when at least one candidate has a vested interest in chaos and a proven knack for generating it himself.

Which is all to say that this week’s stats mean very close to nothing, since they will soon be superseded by next week’s stats—themselves the result of various unforeseen events—and not even Nate Silver can anticipate the unexpected.  By the second Tuesday of November—some 13 weeks hence—no one will remember a thing about what happened in the first week of August.

That is, unless they do.  Unless we look back—say, on November 9th—and conclude that the week-and-a-half following the Democratic National Convention marked the moment when all the pieces of this wild election finally fell into place.  When—after a year of dithering—a convincing majority of Americans finally took a long, hard look at Donald Trump and said, “This man is a terrible human being.  For the love of God, let’s vote for literally anybody else.”

If Clinton wins this election—particularly if she wins big—that’s exactly what we will say, and we will be absolutely right.  If her suddenly-commanding lead holds for the duration and Trump goes down in ignominious defeat, we will mark this period as the tipping point, noting—among other things—the veritable avalanche of Republican lawmakers and dignitaries who have publicly—and seemingly in unison—declared their opposition to letting Donald Trump anywhere near the Oval Office, voicing their disgust with their party’s nominee in no uncertain terms.

If all goes according to plan, these past several days will have been when America finally ended its flirtation with a bizarro fantasy world and snapped back into reality once and for all.

Now, I’m not holding my breath on this, and neither should anybody else (particularly Hillary Clinton).  But let’s run with this Trump-is-toast theory for a moment, if only to take a crack at a question Salman Rushdie recently posed on Real Time with Bill Maher:  “What is Trump’s kryptonite?  What is the thing that is finally going to get him?”

Up until now, we have never quite figured that one out, since every absurd, embarrassing incident that was supposed to sink Trump’s candidacy has only made him more popular with his peeps—hence the funhouse mirror feel of this whole ridiculous experience.

So—now that it appears Candidate Trump may well be mortally wounded—what exactly happened?  What was different about the last few weeks—compared to the 13 months that preceded them—to finally get it into people’s heads that this man is fundamentally unfit for the highest office in the land?

As we ponder this great mystery, let us step back and realize that we are talking about an extremely small, select group of our fellow citizens.  Whatever people may tell pollsters, it seems safe to say that the number of voting Americans who have yet to form an opinion of Donald Trump—be it positive or negative—could probably fit comfortably inside a single conference room of a local Marriott.  (Perhaps we should keep them there until they make up their minds.)

The truth is that, when it comes to Trump—and, by turns, the election—90-something percent of us are totally unreachable, convinced either that he is the greatest thing since gluten-free bread or is, as Andrew Sullivan put it, “an extinction-level event.”

Puzzling over why Trump has proved so impervious to his own faults is a bit like asking why trans fats haven’t stopped most of us from eating red meat:  We Americans do whatever we damn well please, and we won’t let trivial considerations like heart disease or nuclear war induce us into altering our behavior.

That is, except for a few us every now and again.

So sure, maybe Trump’s insane confrontation with a Gold Star family pushed some voters over the edge—even though he has slandered other military heroes in the past.  Maybe the relentless parade of anti-Trump speeches at the Democratic National Convention convinced fence-sitters of things that a year’s worth of Trump’s own behavior had not.  Maybe this unprecedented coming-out of #NeverTrump Republicans has underlined this man’s unhinged, unprincipled narcissism more persuasively than when it came from the mouths of liberal Democrats.  Or maybe it has simply been the cumulative effect of all the above and more occurring at roughly the exact same moment.

Whatever.  Call me a snob, but I’ve found myself rapidly losing interest in the psychology of someone who looks upon the face of an authoritarian and finds something—anything—to like.  If you are repelled by Trump keeping a crying baby from entering a rally but are attracted to him keeping 1.6 billion Muslims from entering the United States, I welcome your defection to #TeamHillary but I don’t anticipate that we would ever have much to talk about.  Indeed, in a normal election, there’s no way we would ever wind up on the same team, but then—as Ezra Klein so eloquently explained on Vox—this has not been a great year for normal.

By rights, the 2016 election was supposed to be a referendum on Barack Obama, a two-term incumbent whose legacy Hillary Clinton has promised to carry on without interruption.  And yet, instead, the race has become a referendum on Donald Trump.  Why?  Because Trump’s character has made it impossible for us to concentrate on anything else.  His abject rottenness had subsumed every other variable in this race.

And why on Earth shouldn’t it?  In government, as in medicine, first you must do no harm, and Trump is a seven-alarm cataclysm within striking distance of the West Wing.

He doesn’t just need to lose:  He needs to lose spectacularly.  He needs to go down in the general election like he should’ve gone down in the Republican primaries:  With the metaphorical force of a 16-ton anvil.  He needs to be humiliated and made an example of for all future demagogues who think they can rise to the top by sinking to the bottom.

Or—if you’d prefer a more positive spin—Hillary Clinton needs to win by a lot more than eight points.  She needs to crush it like she’s never crushed anything before.  She needs to be elected in such a ridiculous landslide that, 20 or 30 years from now, we will have totally forgotten the name of the poor schmuck she ran against.

As we know, history is written by the winners.  Never in our lifetimes have we encountered someone who deserved to lose bigger and more urgently than Trump.

Greatest Expectations

Who could’ve known that Donald Trump isn’t always on the level?

While we can’t yet say for sure, this week we were provided the strongest evidence to date that the presumptive GOP nominee has something to hide.  Namely, his taxes.

During one of the many Republican debates earlier this year, Trump assured us that he will disclose his most recent tax returns just as soon as the IRS completes an audit.  Then, just a few days ago, he informed us that, on second thought, he might not release them at all—or at least not until after November’s election.  If he makes good on this non-promise, he would be the first presidential nominee in 40 years to keep his tax information to himself.

Ordinarily, our leaders’ income would not necessarily be an object of our immediate interest.  However, Donald Trump has made his apparently bottomless wealth the centerpiece of his candidacy—the centerpiece of himself, really—and so when he suddenly becomes squeamish about actually showing us the state of his finances, we are justified in assuming that something shady is afoot.

Is he not nearly as rich as he claims?  Has he been stowing his taxable income in a covert hideaway in Panama or the Cayman Islands?  Does he donate little or nothing to charity?  Does he count some secret love child among his dependents?

Unless and until Trump comes clean, we have no choice but to speculate.

In any case, it’s worth noting how brazenly and completely Trump brought this impending scandal upon himself—that is, by bragging about his income and then refusing to publish his 1099s.  His evasiveness on this issue—apart from being just one more demonstration of what a rotten president he would be—signals just how unprepared he is for the world of electoral politics—in particular, the art of managing expectations.

Up to now, Trump has built and sustained his shocking popularity among GOP primary voters largely through an endless stream of hyperbolic claims and impossible promises.  Whether in a debate, TV appearance or campaign rally, Trump only ever speaks in the vaguest and most extravagant terms when trying to sell or explain his policy platform, constantly employing words like “great,” “big,” “utterly,” “beautiful,” “wonderful” and “tremendous,” leaving himself precious little time for details, nuance or substance.  Unfailingly, when asked, “How will you solve issue X?” Trump responds with some version of, “By doing something terrific.”

On the one hand, this admixture of ignorance and cynicism is—like everything else about this man—almost too ridiculous to take seriously.  On the other hand, it indicates that Trump understands the same fundamental truth that Barack Obama understood in 2008 (and Ronald Reagan in 1980), which is that in a presidential campaign, hope conquers all.  That if you successfully conjure the image of America as a shining city on a hill on which the Lord’s blessings will never cease (with or without a big, beautiful wall around it), the public just may forget all the hard work that goes into making such a prosperous American Eden possible and will vote their dreams at the expense of reality.

However, what Trump apparently doesn’t grasp is that once the election is won and the burden of governing begins, the people will gradually regain their senses and expect at least a few of their dreams to come true.  And when none of those happy fantasies come to pass, they will begin to wonder just what they voted for in the first place.

Sure:  Every president in history has made pledges he was not able to fulfill—either because circumstances (read:  Congress) wouldn’t allow it or because—gasp!—he was an opportunist who never really meant it in the first place.  Sooner or later—whether by accident or design—the president is going to disappoint every last person in America.

The difference with Trump is that he genuinely believes he is invincible and that all checks on presidential power can be transcended through the sheer force of his libido.  From his various statements on immigration and foreign policy, he is either completely ignorant about the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions (among other things) or he simply considers them negotiable.  Why listen to Madison and Hamilton when you’re the guy who wrote The Art of the Deal?

In other words, for all his confidence tricks and bluster, Trump basically believes his own nonsense.  He promises his supporters the moon and the stars because, in some corner of his psyche, he thinks he can deliver both.

Well, he can’t—at least not without violating the Constitution and committing several war crimes along the way.

Which means that, should Trump become president, one of two things will happen:  Either he will succeed at rendering our founding documents moot and establishing himself as emperor, or he will discover that 229 years of institutional checks and balances are more powerful than one man’s ego.

Indeed, if there is a silver lining to Trump’s most reprehensible ideas, it’s the impossibility of them ever getting passed.  By setting the bar so very high, Trump has set himself up to fail.  Snake oil salesman that he is, he has planted ideas in the minds of his supporters that, by definition, will never come to pass.

Here, then, is the best argument yet that Trump is truly not a politician.  If he were, he would’ve caught on by now that campaign pledges are more than just words.  That once he’s in power, he just might be held to account for them and be judged accordingly.  That after four years of disappointment, those video clips of him saying, “We’ll have so much winning if I’m elected that you may get bored with winning,” will look even dumber than they look now.

It is my continued belief that Trump had no intention of doing this well in the primaries—let alone of becoming the nominee—and he therefore never saw any reason to calibrate his vision for America to how the government actually functions.  So long as his candidacy remained a manic pipe dream, he could swing for the fences without consequence.

However, now that he is effectively the face of the Republican Party, he is in the unenviable position of having to put up or shut up.  And we know full well that he is incapable of either one.