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.

Houston, You Have a Problem

Am I the only person in America who walks into a public restroom without giving a thought to whoever else might be in there?

No, really:  When I enter the men’s room, I have exactly one item on my agenda.  And once that mission has been accomplished, I wash my hands, make my way to the exit and return to my regularly-scheduled life.

Seems like pretty basic etiquette to me:  Get in, get out, move on.  Public bathrooms may forever be an inherently awkward social phenomenon—particularly at halftime or intermission, when the whole town is there at once—but the weirdness can very easily be alleviated by, shall we say, minding your own damn business.  I’ve tried it for nearly three decades now.  Works like a charm.

In fact, I’m guessing that most people take this minimalist approach to bathroom behavior.  Indeed, we might agree that the matter of regulating multi-person lavatories is one of those issues that wouldn’t even exist if everyone would just act like a normal, decent human being.  After all, if each of us were capable of navigating a bathroom without eying our fellow patrons and making moral judgments, it wouldn’t even occur to us to draft legislation specifying who can (and cannot) use them.

Unfortunately, we aren’t all capable of going to the john without making a big, dumb stink about it.  As a result, we had that massive pile of nonsense last week in Houston, where voters resoundingly rejected an anti-discrimination ordinance out of fear that it would engender a predatory atmosphere in certain Texas restrooms.

Specifically, the Houston proposal would have banned discrimination in various public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity (among other things).  While such a proposal might seem fairly uncontroversial today—19 states and Houston’s own city council have passed bills along the same lines—city residents voted it down following a scare campaign by opponents who argued that the ordinance, if enacted, would enable male sexual predators to enter women’s restrooms and commit unthinkable crimes.

After all—the logic went—if the city of Houston allowed men who identify as women to use the ladies’ room instead of the men’s, what’s to stop actual men from claiming to identify as women in order to sneak into the ladies’ room and do something appalling?

It makes perfect sense—until you think about it for more than, say, 10 or 15 seconds.

Certainly, we can accept the premise that there are a handful of men in every city and town who are totally sexually depraved and would barge into a women’s bathroom if they could—say, the moment invisibility cloaks finally hit the shelves.  Indeed, we could even assume that some of these specimens would take advantage of a transgender rights law by intruding into a women-only setting and, upon getting caught, raise their arms and say, “Not to worry, I’m a woman, too!”

That’s apparently what Mike Huckabee had in mind when he joked earlier this year, “I wish that someone told me that when I was in high school that I could have felt like a woman when it came time to take showers in PE.  I’m pretty sure that I would have found my feminine side and said, ‘Coach, I think I’d rather shower with the girls today.’”  If a two-term governor and presidential candidate can speak about sexual predation in such a lighthearted manner, just imagine what’s in the minds of the people voting for him.

What is much harder to fathom, however, is that the realization of these sick fantasies is such an imminent threat that it outweighs any consideration for the rights and safety of America’s transgender community.

So far as I know, sexual harassment is still illegal in the city of Houston.  If Mike Huckabee or anyone else totters into the wrong locker room and starts peeping around, it won’t be long before the authorities get involved.

Meanwhile, there are roughly 700,000 people in the United States who genuinely identify as the opposite gender from the one they were born as, and when they step into a bathroom they have exactly one objective in mind, and it’s the least-sexy activity you could imagine.

That’s the real fallacy in this whole kerfuffle:  The idea that restrooms are ground zero for satisfying your deepest, darkest sexual desires.  Internet porn, but for real.

Except for those in the violent throes of puberty, are there any mentally and emotionally-balanced people who actually think this way?

I mentioned how my own bathroom visits tend to be as quick and uneventful as possible.  I didn’t mention that I’m a guy who’s attracted to other guys.  For me—in theory, anyway—to be in a men’s locker room is precisely the fantasy that straight men can only dream of.  I beat the system simply by existing.

But you know what?  At no point in those situations have I ever thought, “Lucky me.”  Never has the act of entering a public restroom caused my spine to shiver or my heart to race.

Quite the opposite, in fact.  When you’re in the closet, the high school locker room is the most terrifying place on planet Earth, as you realize that one wrong look could result in you being unceremoniously outed and, as a consequence, teased, bullied or killed.  (I managed to avoid all of that, but not everyone does.)

Post-coming-out, this feeling of cautiousness never completely leaves you.  For all the recent breakthroughs in gay rights, homophobia has not yet been completely killed off, and the men’s room is the absolute last place to test it.

So you act natural, keep your head down, do your thing and get the hell out.

While I don’t know for sure, I suspect that the transgender experience is fairly similar on this front, albeit much worse.  When—through no fault of your own—you find yourself in an intimate social setting at the mercy of other people’s prejudices, your only concern is getting out of there alive and in one piece.

As far as politics go, you can always depend upon loud idiots to be unintentionally hilarious, and opponents of the Houston bill did not disappoint.  The signature placard at the anti-ordinance protests read, “No men in women’s bathrooms.”  Of course, that’s exactly what the transgender community wants:  For everyone to be able to use the restroom that corresponds with his or her true gender.

A person who was born female but identifies as male is a man, period.  Had it passed, Houston’s law would have ensured that that person would be entitled to use the men’s room, thereby averting the spectacle of a man in a women’s bathroom.  By rejecting the ordinance, Houstonians have guaranteed the presence of men in women’s bathrooms (and vice versa), thereby prolonging the confusion and discomfort on all sides of the case.

Sooner or later, this will have to be fixed.

America’s sexual outliers don’t choose to be the way they are—why would they?— but they do insist upon having their existence acknowledged by society and being treated as equal under the law.  Letting them go to the bathroom in peace is literally the least we can do.