Searching for Sister Souljah

Last weekend, a gang of racist and anti-Semitic terrorists descended upon Charlottesville, Virginia, murdering a 32-year-old woman and injuring 19 others in an unambiguous show of intimidation and blind hatred toward a wide swath of their fellow human beings.

In response to this clear-cut example of American white supremacy run amok, the president of the United States did what he does best:  Blame everyone but himself.  Provided a golden opportunity to appear presidential for the first time in his life, Donald Trump instead managed to denounce violence and bigotry in general but somehow forget to identify the groups responsible for the violence and bigotry perpetrated on Friday night.  The unrest in Charlottesville, Trump said on Saturday, was the fault of agitators “on many sides”—an argument he amplified on Tuesday, when he attempted to equate the “alt-right” with the heretofore non-existent “alt-left.”

As with most previous instances of Trump saying the exact opposite of what he should have said, there was no mystery as to why he avoided condemning neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates by name:  They are his most loyal and vociferous defenders.  Every one of them voted for him last November, and losing their support now would constitute an existential threat to his presidency in the election of 2020, if not sooner.  As ever, Trump’s only true instinct is self-preservation, and if a second civil war is the cost of winning his next campaign, so be it.

What Trump desperately needs—what America desperately needs—is a Sister Souljah moment.

As students of the 1990s will recall, Sister Souljah was an African-American musician and social critic who reacted to the 1992 Los Angeles race riots by remarking, “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?”  Asked to comment, then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton renounced any association Sister Souljah might’ve had with the Democratic Party, saying, “If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black,’ and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech.”

Clinton’s unequivocal disavowal of left-wing extremism—in the heat of a presidential campaign, no less—won plaudits as a mild profile in political courage, positioning him firmly in the center of the Democratic Party, while also drawing suspicion from many on the far left.  In the years since, the term “Sister Souljah moment” has become shorthand for a politician distancing himself from elements of his own ideological team, thereby risking his political fortune for the sake of moral rectitude.

To be sure, examples of such brave stands since 1992 have been few and far between.  Perhaps the most famous—and costly—condemnation came in the 2000 GOP primaries, where candidate John McCain bellowed to a crowd in Virginia, “Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right.”  While McCain’s bold (if equivocating) rebuke to the then-dominant “religious right” helped further cement his reputation as a straight-talking “maverick,” it did him no favors at the ballot box:  As it turned out, most Republican primary voters liked the religious right just fine, thank you very much.

Much more recent—and, arguably, much more admirable—was an interview with Bernie Sanders in February 2016, during which CNN’s Jake Tapper raised the issue of “Bernie bros”—i.e., Sanders enthusiasts whose pathological antipathy toward Hillary Clinton seemed rooted almost entirely in rank misogyny.  “Look, we don’t want that crap,” Sanders told Tapper.  “Anybody who is supporting me and is doing sexist things…we don’t want them.  I don’t want them.  That’s not what this campaign is about.”

The Tapper interview didn’t receive a huge amount of press at the time, but it was a signal test of character for the feisty senator from Vermont, and he passed with flying colors.  While there is nothing difficult about decrying sexism in all its ugly forms—or at least there shouldn’t be—Sanders went a step further by specifically disowning the people who are sexism’s leading practitioners—namely, his core voters—and, what’s more, by suggesting that if those idiots didn’t get their act together right quick, he would just as well not have their support at all.  He’d rather lose honorably than win at the hands of a bunch of cretins.

That moment is a mere 18 months old, yet today it feels unimaginably quaint—a relic from a long-bygone era in which chivalry was not a four-letter word and basic human decency was considered more valuable than gold.

Will America witness another Sister Souljah moment like that again?  Will we ever get it from the man currently in the Oval Office?

Indeed, it is very easy to imagine how such a disavowal would be arrived at, since Donald Trump has been offered one opening after another to give it the old college try.  Faced with the murderous, torch-wielding skinheads who comprise his natural constituency—and his electoral firewall—he would merely need to step up to a podium and proclaim, “Racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and all other forms of bigotry represent a cancer on the American way of life and will not be tolerated so long as I am president.  Furthermore, I cannot in good conscience accept the vote or endorsement of any individual who holds such poisonous views, for I could not live with myself knowing that I had gotten to where I am on a platform of race-baiting, violence, hatred and cruelty.”

Should Trump ever issue a statement to that effect—and mean it—it would signify a willingness not just to throw his basket of deplorables under the bus once and for all, but also to enlarge his base of support to include at least a sliver of the nearly two-thirds of Americans who do not currently approve of his job performance as commander-in-chief but could potentially change their minds in the future.  It would enable him, at long last, to become a president for all Americans—not just the ones in the SS boots and the white hoods.

Could Donald Trump ever rise to that occasion?  Isn’t it pretty to think so?

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Crawl Space

In the event that Donald Trump is elected president on Tuesday, I will probably be too busy digging a hole to the center of the Earth to comment on the results in a timely fashion—and most of you will be too busy helping me dig to read it—so instead I will get ahead of the game and offer my reaction to a Trump victory now.

Well, we did it, America.  Presented with the opportunity to elect our first female commander-in-chief—something Iceland did 36 years ago and Ireland has done twice—we opted, instead, for a man who judges all women on a scale of 1 to 10 and has sexually assaulted at least 12 of them to date (allegedly).

Faced with a candidate who graced the White House and the Senate for eight years apiece and helmed the State Department for four, we selected for our president a callous, selfish, avaricious businessman whose entire public life has been a massive pyramid scheme for the benefit of exactly one person:  himself.

Offered the chance to anoint to America’s highest office a legendary policy wonk who understands legislative nuance the way Bill Belichick understands defensive strategy, we decided the best choice for Leader of the Free World is a guy who once held three different positions on abortion in a single afternoon and, from various public statements, is apparently unaware of at least three-fifths of the First Amendment.

I could go on—oh, how I could go on—but after spending a solid year and a half explaining how the very existence of Donald Trump stands as a permanent blot on the character of the United States—how he personifies literally every negative stereotype the world has ever dreamed up about the Greatest Country on Earth—I think we all feel a bit like Walter White lying in his basement crawl space, overwhelmed by an avalanche of failure and madness, finding there’s really nothing left to do except maniacally laugh ourselves into a state of blissful oblivion.

Through eight years of George W. Bush, our generation discovered there are consequences to making an incompetent dolt the most powerful person in America, and now—after an eight-year reprieve headlined by a brilliant, thoughtful, compassionate hipster—we are about to learn that lesson all over again.  Rock bottom, here we come.

However, rather than merely despair over what is unquestionably the most disgraceful and dangerous election result in the United States since at least 1972, I propose rounding up a search party for a set of silver linings—a collective glimmer of hope to get us through the darkness of the days and months ahead.

As we think more deeply about what good might come from the worst presidential candidate—and, in all likelihood, the worst president—of any of our lifetimes, here are a few shallow thoughts to tide us over between now and January 20.

  1. Trump could drop dead on a moment’s notice.

Notwithstanding Lewis Black’s axiom, “The good die young, but pricks live forever,” America’s president-elect is, after all, an overweight 70-year-old man who apparently eats nothing but fast food and considers public speaking his primary form of exercise.  Actuarially-speaking, the fact that Trump has lived this long is a goddamned miracle.  For him to somehow survive another four years would be the most persuasive evidence to date that God exists and has a rather twisted sense of humor.

Should Trump succumb to the massive heart attack that we all know is coming, the nation would then, of course, fall into the hands of Mike Pence—an ultra-conservative, scientifically illiterate homophobe who nonetheless possesses the ability to speak in complete sentences, understands the rudiments of legislative give-and-take and, most encouragingly of all, does not especially relish having to defend the rougher edges (i.e., the entirety) of Trump’s personality, meaning that once Trump is gone, President Pence would feel no particular responsibility to mold himself in Trump’s image for the sake of continuity.  As president, he would serve as a comparatively ordinary, across-the-board Republican who, for all his horrifying faults, would not pose an existential threat to global stability and constitutional law.

  1. In the election of 2020, the Democratic Party will boast its deepest and most youthful bench since, well, possibly ever.

Earlier this year, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni—as if to raise his own spirits—ran a story highlighting 14 up-and-coming Democratic elected officials under the age of 45—a concept totally alien to this year’s primary fight between a 68-year-old elder stateswoman and a cranky, 74-year-old socialist.  Bruni’s list is commendable, above all, for its sheer variety, boasting representatives of different races, ethnicities, sexualities and geographic origins—a clear and obvious contrast to the GOP’s stubbornly white, male complexion.

Needless to say, this group includes its fair share of women—as does the party as a whole.  (Among all the women in Congress, nearly three-quarters are Democrats.)  Indeed, to take even a casual look at the field of potential future presidents on the Democratic side is to realize how very silly it was to declare Hillary Clinton the one and only chance to have a female president in our lifetimes.  Surely by now we know better than to pin all of humanity’s hopes on a single human being.

Then again, perhaps not.

  1. The next four years will be a veritable golden age of piercing political satire.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that what is bad for America is great for the nation’s professional funny people, and the inherent comedic potential of a President Trump is as rich as it is bottomless.  As a man both obscenely powerful and profoundly clownish—and totally incapable of recognizing the latter—Trump will never cease being a walking, talking punch line for as long as America retains the right to free expression as a founding principle of our society—something that even Trump can’t completely stamp out.

What’s more, the very fact that Trump manifestly cannot take a joke at his own expense—let alone a string of vicious insults that he is all-too-willing to unleash upon others—means that every new public mockery of this eminently mockable creature will carry an added layer of danger and subversion—a sense that America’s court jesters are just one gag away from being rounded up in the middle of the night and shipped off to Guantanamo Bay.  The Daily Show ran an entire episode to that effect on Halloween night and—speaking of which—if the continued presence of Trump means the reemergence of Jon Stewart—in whatever guise he chooses—then the whole thing will have just about been worth it.

But that’s easy enough to say for an educated, non-Muslim white man who can pass for straight and lives in a magical place (Massachusetts) that guarantees health insurance regardless of whether Obamacare survives to fight another day.

For everyone else—women, religious and ethnic minorities, the poor, the uneducated, the unemployed and the uninsured—this is not a great day for America, and it will get a lot worse before it ever gets better.

But at least democracy itself prevailed.  The election was not rigged and there will be neither a month-long recount nor a coup d’état in its wake.  Trump won, America lost, but civilized society endures.  For now.

A Nation of Deplorables

On Monday, I will be casting the third presidential ballot of my life.  (Hurray for early voting!)  Incidentally—and I don’t mean to brag—this will be the third consecutive time that I will not be voting for an alleged sexual predator for the highest office in the land.

True:  In an enlightened, democratic society, you’d think that not having a possible rapist on the ballot would go more or less without saying.  On our better days, we Americans possess a sufficient level of moral outrage not to let that kind of crap occur.

But 2016 has just been one of those years, so instead we’re stuck with a man—and I use that word loosely—who feels so entitled to the bodies of American women (by his own tape-recorded admission) that his only response to multiple allegations of sexual misconduct is to ridicule the looks of his alleged victims.  Say what you will about Bill Clinton (and I will), but he at least had the courtesy to refer to his most famous accuser by name.

With this year’s standards for electability and decency being what they are, I can take a modicum of pride in having resisted the would-be allure of a vulgar, sexist thug as leader of the free world.  Personally, I intend to continue my trend of voting for non-rapists—and, for that matter, non-misogynists—for the remainder of my life as a citizen.  As John Oliver might say, it is literally the least I can do.

And yet, historically, this has not necessarily been the case for many American voters.

In 1996, for instance, some 47 million of my countrymen opted to keep Bill Clinton in the White House, which is to say that 47 million Americans voted for a man who, apart from being a confessed adulterer, has long been accused of sexual assault—a charge to which he has yet to speak a single word in his defense.  To be fair, the rape allegation didn’t become widely known until Clinton’s second term in office, but I can’t help but notice that—nearly two decades after the fact—the 42nd president remains among the most beloved men in public life, particularly within the political party that claims to be the protector of vulnerable and mistreated women.

Am I really the only person experiencing cognitive dissonance over this rather glaring moral contradiction?

Look:  We all know that Donald Trump’s recent attacks on Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadilloes are merely a half-assed attempt to divert attention from Trump’s own horrifying attitudes (and actions) toward women.  But this does not mean that Clinton’s transgressions didn’t occur and that he should not be held to the same standards as every other alleged abuser.

If you believe—as I do—that women who level rape charges tend to be telling the truth, and if you agree that what we know we know about Clinton would suggest that such charges could be true in his case, then you must conclude that continuing to hold up this man, uncritically, as a Democratic Party icon is problematic at best and despicable at worst.

So why do we do it?  Because—as Orwell famously said—it takes a great struggle to see what is directly in front of our own eyes.  Because human beings are exceptionally good at convincing themselves of what should be true, rather than what is true.  Because we prefer myth to reality, particularly when facing the latter head-on would completely undermine the power of the former.

Just as most historians refused to accept that Thomas Jefferson fathered six children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, until a DNA test proved it once and for all, admirers of Bill Clinton will continue to reassure themselves that he didn’t rape Juanita Broaddrick in 1978, because, well, that’s just not the sort of thing he would do.  Indeed, he couldn’t have done it, because what would that say about all the good people who’ve unconditionally supported and admired him all through the years?

Well, we know what it would say:  That they are either fools or co-conspirators—irretrievably naïve or irredeemably wicked.  And so the solution to this quandary—as unsatisfying as it is inevitable—is to either ignore the problem altogether or to rationalize it to within an inch of its life.  By and large, that is exactly what the Democratic Party has done.

With Trump, of course, it has become so gratingly obvious that sexual harassment (if not assault) is exactly the sort of thing he would do—not least because he’s said so himself—that all excuses or evasions on his behalf can (and largely have) been dismissed as sheer farce.  At this moment—with at least 10 different women having corroborated Trump’s boasts about placing his hands where they definitely don’t belong—to hear that “no one has more respect for women” than Trump has all the believability of Michael Palin insisting to John Cleese that his parrot is still alive.

Which brings us to what has—among liberals, at least—been a defining question of this whole ordeal:  What the hell is Natwrong with Donald Trump’s supporters?

By Nate Silver’s most recent estimate, Trump will end up garnering 43 percent of the vote, which translates to roughly 55 million people.  From what I can gather, this most bewitching chunk of Americans can be subdivided into three groups:

  1. So-called “traditional” conservatives who are disgusted by Trump’s antics and don’t really want him to win, but have nonetheless accepted him as an ideological bulwark against a President Hillary Clinton.
  2. Lifelong Republicans who have somehow managed to look past Trump’s defects and, being totally fed up with “the system,” are hopeful he can serve as a human Molotov cocktail who will magically—and single-handedly—change the way Washington works.
  3. The basket of deplorables.

Obviously that final group is wholly beyond repair, but can we really say the same about groups one and two?

Almost without exception, liberals have condemned all Trump voters as equally irrational and repulsive for daring to stand behind such an irrational and repulsive candidate.  While it may be easy and cathartic to dismiss half the country as a bunch of racist loony toons, it’s also a way of avoiding the uncomfortable fact that, had your life circumstances been just a little different—and your political opinions rotated just a few degrees to the right—you, too, may have spent the majority of 2016 engulfed in a painful existential dilemma as to what is the right thing to do—about how much nonsense you’re willing to endure to keep your favored political party in charge of the executive branch.

In light of recent history, we might want to think twice about being so sweepingly judgmental.

Again:  Some 20 years ago, 47 million liberals voted for commander-in-chief a man—Bill Clinton—whom they knew full well was a liar and a womanizer, and it was because they told themselves that, on balance, he nonetheless represented the majority of their interests and values.  And yet now, in 2016, most of those same liberals are berating conservatives for engaging in the exact same moral compromise for the exact same reasons.

Pot, meet kettle.

The truth—the whole truth—is that each and every one of us is susceptible, sooner or later, to vote for a morally repugnant presidential candidate, provided his or her election suits our own political purposes.  Whether they realize it or not, a majority of Americans have done—or soon will do—exactly that, and they (read: we) would be well-advised to check their righteous indignation at the door, or at least to temper it enough so as not to appear like such oblivious, whining hypocrites.

28 Days Later

Amidst all the sludge and dreck of the 2016 presidential campaign, over the weekend I was presented with a small but extremely welcome silver lining:  It will all be over much sooner than I thought.

To be precise, where I live in Massachusetts, it will be over on October 24.  In roughly a dozen other states it’s over already, and in any case, fully two-thirds of the country will be done with this wretched election sometime prior to November 8.

I’m referring here to so-called “early voting,” whereby you can essentially stop by your local precinct and cast your ballot whenever you damn well please, without or without a concrete reason.  As with absentee voting, the idea is that Americans lead busy, distracted lives and shouldn’t need to compromise their packed schedules in order to participate in the most important civic duty on planet Earth.  In short:  If voting is really as important as we claim, why limit it to a single calendar day?

More to the point—and in this of all years—voting early (if not often) carries the irresistible added benefit of hurling the memory of this election into oblivion as soon as humanly possible.

Yes, yes:  I understand the 2016 campaign will not literally end—and the winner will not officially be declared—until after the last vote is deposited on Election Day itself.  But I have followed the Clinton-Trump fracas day in and day out since (or, rather, before) the very beginning, and I am as convinced as I can be that the physical act of marking a ballot—no matter how prematurely—will produce such a profound catharsis for the person casting it that he or she will immediately tune out any and all further nonsense that occurs between that moment and the final results late on November 8.

And why is that, boys and girls?  Because over the last few days, this campaign has ceased being amusing and simply become sad.  Even for me—with my high tolerance for political tomfoolery and perverted sense of what constitutes entertainment—the sheer unpleasantness of recent events between our two major candidates has engendered real doubts as to whether this contest will endure for another four weeks without the entire electorate joining hands and leaping into the Grand Canyon.

Above all, of course, I’m thinking of Sunday night’s debate in St. Louis, where Clinton and Trump—but mostly just Trump—abandoned whatever semblance of high-mindedness they had left and proceeded to tear each other to shreds over the most tawdry subject matter that has ever made its way into a presidential forum.  Triggered by the recently-leaked audio tape in which Trump boasts of his proclivity for sexual assault (yup, that really happened), the candidates spent the first half-hour of their time arguing, more or less, about whether Hillary being married to a sexual predator is better or worse than Trump being a sexual predator himself.

On this question, we are once again compelled to accept that two seemingly contradictory facts can be true at the same time:  First, that Hillary’s role in smearing her husband’s alleged victims is among the most unattractive components of her career in public life; and second, that Trump’s own behavior toward women over the last several decades is infinitely worse, infinitely creepier and infinitely more disqualifying for someone seeking the highest office in the land.

For the zillionth time:  They’re both bad, but one of them is a whole lot worse, and we have a moral obligation to differentiate between different degrees of awfulness.  If our response to two imperfect options is to throw up our hands and say, “We’re doomed either way,” then our nihilism will become a self-fulfilling prophesy.  In the end, you get the country you deserve.

And boy did we deserve that debate.  It was arguably the most depressing 90 minutes of this entire campaign, and every moment carried a subtext of chickens coming home to roost for everyone involved—the candidates, the media and the 65 million folks despondently watching at home.

Indeed, in an odd way, the debate served as a near-perfect encapsulation of exactly what Americans’ choices over the last 15 months have wrought, for it allowed us to see our candidates for exactly who they are:  A pair of shifty, desperate, unscrupulous cynics, one of whom at least has the decency to know how government works and to truly grasp all the responsibilities that the American presidency entails.

Entering Sunday’s match in the guise of a human Molotov cocktail, Trump succeeded in wounding Clinton every now and again—say, by underlining her highly-checkered record on Iraq and Syria, or by repeating Bernie Sanders’s classic tropes about her shady dealings with Wall Street—all the while confirming every worst impression we’ve ever had about him.  (In the interest of time, we will refrain from listing them here.)

It was a moment of truth for us all, and a suggestion—even more than Friday’s disgusting tape—that this election has essentially played itself out.  At this moment, we have nothing left to learn about either of these political standard-bearers except for supporting details about everything that we already knew.  All the true surprises have come and gone, and the next 28 days will be nothing more than variations on the same tired themes.

This is not to say that we should withdraw from this ongoing major news event altogether, or that we should take our eye off the dwindling (but still potent) number of idiots who have yet to make up their mind.

And yet—if the most recent polling is to be believed—yeah, actually, we sorta can.  Barring the most dramatic plot twist in modern political history, this election is fundamentally over and the only remaining tension concerns the color of Trump’s face when he discovers, once and for all, that he’s a big, fat, racist loser.

Meanwhile—as we wait for that priceless image to congeal—we have the enormous consolation of early voting to keep us sane.  Here in Massachusetts, I will be washing my hands of this ridiculousness the moment the polls open on October 24, and I invite every eligible early voter to join me in that happy civic expedition.

Profiles in Cowardice

A major reason I supported Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primaries was his uncommon political courage.  Now that his candidacy has died, I worry that political courage itself has been killed off along with it.

If courage is defined as saying or doing something at risk to one’s physical or social well-being, then political courage is saying or doing something at risk to one’s job or reputation.  John F. Kennedy wrote a book about it in 1957, and the Kennedy Library has bestowed a “Profile in Courage Award” upon worthy individuals every year since 1990.

It’s a shame that instances of public valor are so rare that they require official recognition whenever they occur.  Even worse, perhaps, is how the American people’s expectation for such high-minded virtue in their elected officials is so low that the very concept has essentially become a relic—particularly in an election year like this one.

All the same, it’s worth asking:  Has Hillary Clinton taken a single risk in her entire public career?  Has Donald Trump?  If we are to elect one of these people leader of the free world, shouldn’t we expect them to have assumed a gutsy moral stand on something—even if just by accident?

Barack Obama passed this test eight years ago by having openly opposed the Iraq War in 2002.  As for Bernie Sanders, you could say his entire tenure in Congress has been an act of professional chutzpah—specifically, his dogged insistence on calling himself a “democratic socialist” at every turn, despite the obvious hazards of identifying with a political philosophy that is still seen by millions as outright un-American.

In the case of Trump, the issue is complicated—as all such issues are—by the inherent unseriousness of Trump’s entire candidacy.  Since the Donald has shown, over and over again, to believe in nothing but himself and to change his political positions on an almost hourly basis, there’s really no standard by which we can say he has ever risked his so-called principles for any higher purpose.

Oddly enough, if he were a normal candidate with even a glimmer of intellectual consistency, we could say—with absolute truth—that he has taken brave political stances on multiple occasions throughout this campaign.  Indeed, Trump has, at certain points, unambiguously said things that, up to now, were considered ideological treason by the Republican Party and were grounds for excommunication from the party and the campaign.

For instance, there was that time he asserted—at a GOP debate, no less—that “millions of women are helped by Planned Parenthood.”  Or his repeated claims that Iraq was better off with Saddam Hussein than with George W. Bush’s war.  Or his related view that 9/11 was essentially President Bush’s fault.  Or his assurance that if Caitlyn Jenner walked into one of his buildings, she could use whichever restroom she wanted.

Ordinarily, any of the above would register as political audacity of the highest order, since no GOP candidate could reasonably expect to rise to the top with such heresies as those.

Except for two things.  First—and at the risk of repeating ourselves—there is no reason to think Trump genuinely believes anything he’s ever said (even many of his own supporters have their doubts).  And second:  By the time Trump even bothered making substantive remarks of any kind, he was already ankle-deep in sexist remarks, racist remarks, Islamophobic remarks and anti-immigrant remarks—all of which only enhanced his standing in the polls, thereby insulating him from all the usual rules of political logic thereafter.

In other words, once GOP voters bought into the bigotry, paranoia and white male victimhood that comprise the entirety of Trump’s appeal, they essentially stopped listening to anything else that came out of his mouth.  And Trump, sensing this, became liberated to break with any Republican orthodoxy that he wished, knowing it would have no adverse affect on his poll numbers—and, therefore, no longer qualify as political courage.

With Hillary Clinton, the calculus is mercifully simpler:  As a public servant, she is wholly preoccupied with the objectives of her various constituencies and the minutiae of turning those dreams into reality.  As such, she is possibly the most risk-averse person who has ever run for president and, if elected, cannot be expected to make any inspired leap of faith on any major initiatives.

To wit:  She supported the Iraq War until it started going badly.  For all her gay-friendly bona fides, she didn’t publicly endorse same-sex marriage until March 2013—10 months after President Obama did the same.  Her views on America’s various trade agreements tend to oscillate based on popular sentiment at the time, as do her positions on gun control, immigration and Wall Street.

There’s an interesting and worthwhile argument going on about whether Clinton’s identity as a cautious, finger-to-the-wind incrementalist is a virtue or a vice.  (In the interest of time, we’ll save that debate for another day.)  In either case, it means she will not—under almost any circumstances—be ahead of the proverbial curve on any controversial subject.  Indeed, it is not clear whether she believes a president should be a pioneer of that sort, or whether she should merely go wherever the public takes her.

Drawing from her research on Abraham Lincoln, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has said that the role of a president is to be a step ahead of the people, but to allow them to take that extra step on their own terms—that is, by nudging them in a certain direction without being pushy.

Would it be too generous to call that an accurate summary of how Hillary Clinton operates?  If pressed for a one-sentence appraisal of Clinton’s character, I’d offer that she has genuine political views—often shaped by trial and error—but that her deference to public opinion precludes her from sharing them until it becomes practical to do so.  Some would call this calculation.  Others would call it democracy.

In any case, hardly anyone would call it courage.  Clinton fancies herself “a progressive who likes to get things done,” and as appealing as that may sound (to progressives), it suggests a dull, single-minded efficiency that doesn’t allow for thinking too far outside the box, lest it distract from the central task at hand.

In the long run—and considering the historically impotent Congress we now have—maybe Clinton’s limited imagination will do the trick.  Maybe big and bold are luxuries we can’t currently afford and perhaps we’re better off not deluding ourselves into thinking otherwise.

After all, it’s not as if courageous decisions are an inherently good idea.  In the end, they are only as worthwhile as the person making them and the circumstances in which they come about.  If 2016 has taught us anything, it’s to be extremely wary of candidates who aren’t concerned about the consequences of their actions.

Unbelievable

If the continued existence of Donald Trump has produced any redeeming value for the American culture—and “if” is definitely the correct word—it has been the opportunity for us to argue about Donald Trump.  And for all the millions of words that have been expended on who Trump is and what he represents, we have yet to reach any real consensus on either score—a fact so improbable and bizarre that many of us have failed to even notice it.

Obviously, we’re not talking about whether the Republican presidential nominee is an infantile, boorish windbag.  On that we can all agree.

The more interesting argument—interesting because of its apparent insolubility—is the one that invariably takes the form of, “Is Trump really an X, or does he just play one on TV?”  While the identity of X changes from day to day, it has generally been some variation of “racist,” “misogynist,” “fascist,” “anti-Semite,” “Islamophobe” or some similarly charming personal quirk.

If the list of incidents that have inspired this debate is too enormous to tackle all at once, they have all conveniently followed the same basic pattern.  First, Trump will say (or tweet) something objectively repugnant about some racial, ethnic or social group.  Second, the press will roundly call him out for trafficking in racism, sexism, etc.  Third, Trump will express bewilderment that anyone could possibly infer sinister undertones in the offending remark, since everyone knows he is the least racist/sexist/whatever-ist person in the whole wide world.  Fourth, the press will present him with incontrovertible proof that his comment—by, in extension, he—represents the very definition of rank bigotry of the most obvious and odious form.  And fifth (as Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi has put it), Trump will retort with some variation of, “I know you are, but what am I?”

Certainly, Trump is neither the first nor last presidential candidate to be caught red-handed saying something appalling.  What sets him apart, however, is his fanatical insistence on doubling down, playing innocent and never giving an inch.  No matter how far beyond the pale he has trotted, never once has he apologized for the substance of anything he has said (or endorsed others for saying), always and forever projecting his prejudices onto those accusing him of the same.

Hence the aforementioned mystery:  Is he for real, or is this all a big elaborate performance?

Back in February, HBO’s John Oliver—addressing Trump directly—probably spoke for most of us in asserting, “You are either racist or you are pretending to be, and at some point there is no difference.”  Fair enough, except that Oliver’s formulation makes an implicit assumption that isn’t necessarily warranted—namely, that Trump consciously knows what he’s doing.  By framing the debate as, “Is he a bona fide bigot or is he merely pandering to bigots?” we are granting him a level of guile that he might not actually possess.

To be on the safe side, then, I would pose the $64,000 question as follows:  Deep down, is Trump as ignorant and prejudiced as he appears, or is he wholly oblivious to the consequences of his ugly behavior—i.e. ignorant of his own ignorance?  In other words, when he says, “I don’t think X is sexist” or “I don’t think Y is anti-immigrant,” could he be telling his own version of the truth?  When—to take the most recent example—he retweets an anti-Semitic graphic culled from an anti-Semitic website, is it possible that he is so thick—so utterly lacking in self-awareness and the cultural history of America—that he authentically, in his heart of hearts, doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about?

Given what we know that we know about this wretched excuse for a human being, I think it’s entirely reasonable to conclude that Trump is simply a dolt whose narcissism and gall preludes him from seeing what’s directly in front of his nose.  That he is such a profound sociopath that the very notion of causing someone offense—and needing to make amends for it—is totally alien to his way of seeing the world.

On the other hand, because we also know of his bald cynicism and general low regard for the American public—paired with his undeniable ability to tap into his supporters’ most violent passions and fears—it would require a massive leap of faith to take Trump at his word that he doesn’t perceive any racial or ethnic dimension to what is driving Republican voters so crazy in the first place.

The conventional wisdom is that Trump is trying to have it both ways:  He panders to the GOP base by speaking their own hateful language, then proceeds to placate everyone else by denying he did any such thing.  That—much like on his reality TV shows—he is playing out his fantasy as a devious puppet master who thinks he’s the cleverest person in the room.

But if that’s really what he’s up to, then why has he done such a lousy job of hiding it?  If the idea is to blow racial “dog whistles” that only his supporters can hear, why is it so easy for the rest of us to hear them as well?  Does he truly think the general public is that naïve?  Who’s fooling who?

In 1996, historian Joseph Ellis wrote a momentous biography of Thomas Jefferson, American Sphinx, which argued that our country’s most brazenly duplicitous founding father was able to reside comfortably on both sides of innumerable issues thanks to an elaborate, lifelong game of self-deception—as Ellis put it, by “essentially playing hide-and-seek within himself.”  That is, Jefferson could say or write something one day, then totally deny having done so the next day, and deem himself to be telling the truth both times.  That he was, in effect, an early adopter of the George Costanza maxim, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”

Having just recently discovered Ellis’s book, I now wonder if Trump’s mind operates in much the same way.  Whether it’s likely that, through his many decades as an amoral businessman, he has trained himself to lie in a manner that manages to deceive even himself.  That when he says “believe me”—as he does every time he says something completely unbelievable—his boundless self-confidence comes not from flagrant dishonesty so much as from having drunk his own Kool-Aid.

Accepting this appraisal of Trump’s character—this odd combination of obliviousness and compartmentalization—it becomes plausible that he would see a Star of David superimposed over a pile of money, not realize its anti-Semitic connotations and, when confronted with them, work backwards from “I’m a wonderful person who would never do anything anti-Semitic” to “Therefore, this graphic can’t be anti-Semitic, either.”  It goes without saying that this approach to reality does not permit the introduction of contradictory evidence, and that is where all conflict begins.

As for the John Oliver question—Does it really matter if Trump’s bigotry is genuine or inadvertent?—I would argue it would certainly make a difference if he became president.  Deliberate, open prejudice—for all the misery it wreaks on society—has the one advantage of being, well, deliberate.  If Trump is fully cognizant of how offensive his antics are, it means he is capable—at least in theory—of reining himself in.

However, if he is so blind to basic social etiquette that he can’t even recognize racism when he sees it, then he couldn’t possibly be expected to become a less awful person, since—in his own mind—he would have no reason to do so.

Based on the events of the last year, I think we may finally have found the secret to what makes Donald Trump tick.

Blame the People

It was George Orwell who said it takes a great struggle to see what is sitting directly in front of your nose.  In this three-ring circus of a presidential election, that thing may well be Donald Trump.

I realize the 2016 campaign is only two primaries deep, with some four dozen still to go.  I know that a gazillion utterly unpredictable things could—and probably will—occur between now and the Republican convention in July (say, the death of a Supreme Court justice) and I understand that the pull of historical precedent has the gravitational force of a black hole.

And yet—as I survey the wreckage of the last eight months and scan the primary calendar for the next four—my conclusion is almost inescapable:  Donald Trump will, in fact, be the Republican Party’s presidential nominee.

We all denied this prospect for as long as we possibly could.  Malignant moral tumor that he is, Trump struck us as an entity too horrible to contemplate, too ridiculous to accept.  Whatever the opinion polls said, we just couldn’t bear the thought that a wretched specimen like him could become the standard-bearer for a major American political party, because what would that say about America?

But now—with a 20-point victory in the New Hampshire primary and a group of opponents who keep canceling each other out—the notion of Trump as the nominee has become not just likely, but very nearly inevitable.

The numbers (to coin a phrase) do not lie.  Except for one week in October, Trump has placed first in every national opinion poll taken in the last seven months—often by 15 or 20-point margins—and nothing he has said or done has had the slightest negative impact on that popularity.  Further, since 1976, no Republican has secured his party’s nomination without winning either New Hampshire or South Carolina, and Trump is likely to snag both.  So long as most of his co-candidates stick around (a fairly safe assumption), they will continue to split the non-Trump vote in one primary after another, rendering themselves collectively irrelevant and an utter non-threat.

We can’t deny it any longer:  On the basis of arithmetic and the basic laws of momentum, Donald Trump is unstoppable, and that’s all there is to it.

I can’t say I saw this coming.  Back in August I wrote a dispatch that predicted—in no uncertain terms—that the Trump phenomenon would not—could not—last all the way through the primaries.  “The party will eventually snap out of it, if only out of self-preservation,” I wrote at the time, cavalierly adding, “In our lifetimes, neither the Democrats nor Republicans have nominated a candidate so transparently unelectable who, all the while, held no particular political views and was openly detested by virtually every other official in his own party.”

It would appear I was mistaken.  However, let us be quite clear what I—and everyone else—was mistaken about.

It’s not that we doubted Trump’s ability to rile up a crowd.  Nor did we fail to grasp the appeal of someone who shoots directly from the hip.  Nor—critically—did we misjudge the inner workings of the man himself.

Rather, it’s that we became so consumed—and appalled—by Trump’s faults that we just couldn’t fathom that the number of people who either admired or were willing to overlook them was large enough to carry the day.  We figured Trump couldn’t win because we assumed Republican voters weren’t as hateful and ignorant as he is.

Oops.  Our bad.

Watching TV analysts try to explain how this campaign has reached this weird juncture, it’s striking how squeamish those pundits are about laying the blame on American voters.  Ask them how an infantile, sexist demagogue has utterly captivated 30-something percent of the GOP electorate, and the answer is always some variation of, “Well, he has successfully tapped into a sense of anger among the public.”

In other words:  Never mind that Trump has advocated religious discrimination as part of our immigration policy.  Or that he has repeatedly compared women to farm animals.  Or that just last week he vowed to commit war crimes against suspected terrorists.  (Yes, waterboarding is still torture.)

No, no, no.  The only worthwhile insight is that Trump identifies with the anxiety of millions of Americans who feel that, in Trump’s words, “the country is going to hell.”

Sorry kids, but that explanation just don’t cut the mustard.  The truth—the whole truth—is that the Republican Party is bursting at the seams with irrational, vindictive, poorly-educated white men vaguely dissatisfied with their lives and convinced it’s the fault of everyone except their own selves—in particular, Mexicans, Muslims and “the blacks.”  (And, I suppose, Congress.)

As it turns out, this cohort of GOP loyalists is indeed large enough to carry a cretin like Trump all the way to the finish line, and the reason his popularity has remained so high is that those folks are determined not to see what is directly in front of their faces—namely, that Trump is completely full of crap and is appealing to their basest possible instincts.

Over and over again, Trump’s appeal—such as it is—has been conflated with that of Bernie Sanders.  I really can’t overstress how simpleminded and wrong this theory is.  Although both men are openly contemptuous of the status quo and make a point of calling it as they see it, the similarities most definitely end there.

Consider:  When a bunch of Sanders supporters—the infamous “Bernie bros”—were revealed to be abusive, misogynistic pigs, Sanders reacted in an interview by saying, “It’s disgusting.  We don’t want that crap.  Anybody who is supporting me and is doing sexist things, I don’t want them.  That’s not what this campaign is about.”

Can you imagine that kind of maturity from Trump when faced with similar criticisms?  Of course you can’t, because as he has proved time and again, he manifestly does not believe in seizing the moral high ground or in being even slightly politically correct.  When a Trump supporter commits some atrocity or other—be it physical or rhetorical—Trump invariably comes to the defense of the assailant rather than the victim.  Indeed, if he values anything at all, it’s loyalty, and he is as faithful to the mobs at his rallies as they are to him.  When he recently quipped that his fans wouldn’t desert him even if he committed murder in broad daylight, it struck many of us as the truest statement he’s ever made.

Long story short (too late?), our collective blind spot for Trump’s amazing success was rooted in the premise that most Republican voters are decent, principled people with an innate disgust for shameless, unhinged narcissism fused with a reckless disregard for the rights of women and other institutionally vulnerable groups.

If that premise were true, Trump would not exist.  But it’s not and he does.  If you don’t accept both of those facts simultaneously, you’re missing the ugly forest for the equally ugly trees.

The GOP is saddled with a rotten candidate because it has rotten voters.  Simple as that.  We can bitch all we want about the lackluster quality of our elected representatives, but in the end, we get the leaders we deserve.

In 2016, the Republican Party deserves Donald Trump, and that’s exactly what it’s gonna get.  Will the rest of America follow suit?  It sure doesn’t seem likely, but then again, neither did much else that has occurred since this godforsaken race began.  What gives us the right to be certain of anything in this regard, considering where that confidence has gotten us so far?