The Man in the Tinfoil Hat

Correct me if I’m wrong, but is it possible that Donald Trump has been president for a full 61 days and not once claimed that 9/11 was an inside job?

I’ve scoured the internet for possible examples of such a statement from the sitting commander-in-chief, and so far, I’ve come up with nothing.  (For our purposes, we will discount this interview, since it was given on 9/11 itself, before anyone knew anything.)  As it turns out, in the decade-and-a-half since the worst terrorist attack on American soil, Trump has been totally, weirdly consistent in his view that the World Trade Center was brought down by Osama bin Laden and his minions in al Qaeda—and not, say, by a controlled explosion orchestrated by George W. Bush.  As far as our dear leader is concerned, the basic facts of 9/11 are settled science and not worth questioning further.

In light of all the nonsense that this administration has forced us to confront on a daily—if not hourly—basis, let us take a moment to appreciate the grace and maturity exhibited by the 45th president, vis-à-vis September 11, in accepting incontrovertible evidence as objective truth when there are other options open to him.

After all, this is the same guy who glanced at the cover of National Enquirer and proclaimed that Ted Cruz’s father was an accomplice in the Kennedy assassination.  The guy who propagated the theory that millions of non-citizens committed voter fraud because a German golfer told him so.  The guy who pushed hard for birtherism based on sources he never named, and who just recently accused President Obama of illegally wiretapping him based on documentation he has never produced.  And on and on and on.

Given all of this irresponsible rumor-mongering—this obsessive-compulsive embrace of political fairy tales when empirical facts are readily available—we are left to wonder:  Why isn’t Trump a 9/11 truther?  If he can so easily be made to believe that Obama could surreptitiously “tapp” the phones at Trump Tower, what’s stopping him from buying into a Bush administration that could surreptitiously blow up the World Trade Center to justify a war in Iraq?  As the leader of the free world, shouldn’t he be chomping at the bit to expose the would-be greatest crime of his least favorite Republican president once and for all?

You’d think he would be, and if Trump’s rank gullibility and ignorance aren’t sufficient reasons for him to be suspicious, surely his ongoing association with avowed 9/11 truthers would eventually do the job.

That’s right:  At this very moment, there are bona fide 9/11 skeptics within the president’s inner circle.  No, not his chief of staff or secretary of state—I’m talking about people he actually listens to and whose ideas he regularly repeats.  People like Alex Jones—aka the poor man’s Rush Limbaugh—who uses his radio program to scream about how the Sandy Hook massacre was fake and the government is using chemicals to turn frogs gay.  (Google it, kids!)  Or people like Andrew Napolitano, the Fox News contributor who originated this week’s bizarre claim that the (fictional) wiretaps in Trump Tower were the work of British spies.

These men are cooks, yet Trump’s ear seems to hang on their every word.  The president has come to view their hysterical ravings as gospel, thereby nudging paranoid gobbledygook into mainstream political culture.

We already know how pointlessly disruptive the presence of conspiracy theories can be on the daily operations of the U.S. government.  As we speak, actual intelligence officials are being paid actual wages to “investigate” something the president tweeted several weeks back at 3:35 a.m.  Two days ago, the director of the FBI was compelled to discuss those investigations in front of a congressional committee, all of whose members—like every other person in America—already knew those tweets were BS and hardly needed James Comey to confirm it.

The question now isn’t whether anything substantive will be gleaned from these mad accusations.  (It won’t.)  Rather, the question is how Trump will react to being proved a liar in half a dozen different ways.  If his past behavior is any indication—and it always is—he will continue insisting upon the rightness of his wrongness right up until every member of his administration abandons him, at which point he will sheepishly concede that no wiretap took place, quickly adding that he’s proud to have stubbornly suggested otherwise, since the ensuing investigation was the only way for us to know for sure that President Obama isn’t a criminal.  (As you’ll recall, this was roughly how he handled being humiliated about Obama’s birth certificate in 2011.)

However this particular national embarrassment is resolved, we can take it as a moral certainty that life under Trump will only get dumber from here, and you can take it from me that the longer he remains president, the greater the odds are that he will openly question 9/11.

Remember:  Trump’s solution to any big scandal is to create an even bigger scandal, and at the current rate his presidency is unraveling, it won’t be long before he burns through every other shiny object in his playbook and all that’s left is the Hail Mary.  Yes, the pushback will be fierce, and yes, the calls for his resignation will reach a veritable fever pitch.  But what would that matter to a man who believes he can generate his own reality and dismiss all opponents as the instruments of “fake news”?

In other words, the nation is currently engaged in a staring contest with someone who has no eyelids.  For all the unpredictability baked into our 45th president, we can be absolutely sure that a man who has skirted personal responsibility for the first 70 years of his life is not going to change course by the time he turns 71.  As Newton might’ve said, a president under a delusion will remain that way unless acted upon by a majority of the House and two-thirds of the Senate.

Advertisements

Clueless

What is it about Republicans with anger issues who sell themselves on temperament?

Maybe you missed it at the time, but toward the end of the second debate between Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008, McCain made the case for himself by imploring, “When times are tough, we need a steady hand at the tiller.”

It was a crucial (if obvious) point to make about the person who wields ultimate power, and its essential truth made it all the more bizarre that John McCain—John McCain!—was the one who brought it up.  Yes, the same John McCain who prides himself on being a political street fighter; who is known to tell fellow senators to go f–k themselves; who made Sarah Palin his running mate on a whim; who reacted to the financial meltdown by suspending his own campaign—that guy argued for serenity in America’s chief executive.

Even more absurd than McCain’s attempt to make himself out as the diametric opposite of what he actually is, there was the fact that he happened to be running against Barack Obama, arguably the most preternaturally calm political animal in a generation—a public official who, then as now, seems constitutionally incapable of acting impulsively or without careful deliberation.  A candidate, in other words, who seemed a perfect fit for his opponent’s description of an ideal leader.  And in the end, America agreed.

That McCain would say something so sloppily self-defeating—and so close to Election Day—suggested a lack of basic self-awareness from which he never quite recovered.  (Not that he ever really stood a chance.)  And now, eight years later, we are seeing history repeat itself—albeit in a comically outsize fashion—in the form of the most intellectually dishonest person to ever run for high office.

Among the many, many reasons that Donald Trump would make a god-awful president, his improbable mixture of cynicism and obliviousness is perhaps the most troubling of them all.  As a rule, most bad presidential candidates fall into one of two categories:  Either they themselves are irretrievably stupid, or they appeal to the stupidity of the American public.  It takes a very special kind of badness to accomplish both things at once, but somehow Trump has proved himself up to the task.

The first presidential debate on Monday provided us with multiple encapsulating moments for this terrible campaign, but none more forcefully cried out for our collective horror and ridicule than Trump’s assertion, “I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament.”

For anyone who has followed the 2016 race with even a modicum of guile and objectivity, the notion that Trump’s disposition is an inherent strength of his candidacy—and that Trump himself apparently thinks so—constitutes a plunge into surrealism and self-parody that even the Onion could not improve upon.  It’s a punch line in search of a setup—a claim so demonstrably false that the very act of correcting it makes one feel like valuable time is being squandered—like trying to explain astrophysics to a cat.

That Trump—with a straight face—would single out his temperament as a reason—nay, as the reason—to vote for him is the strongest and most succinct indication to date that his naïveté is even more dangerous and unattractive than his cynicism.

How so?  Because cynicism at least requires a basic understanding of human nature and a desire for self-preservation—traits that, when harnessed effectively, come in awful handy when you’re leader of the free world.

But to be so ignorant of your surroundings and your own flaws that you don’t even realize why everyone is snickering at you—well, that’s no good for anybody, is it?  Certainly not for America.

Let’s start with the bleeding obvious:  The nature of Donald Trump’s temperament is not up for debate.  As Monday’s matchup demonstrated over and over again, Trump operates entirely on impulse.  He shouts, he interrupts, he rambles, he doesn’t consider the consequences of what he says or the feelings of the people hearing them, he doesn’t take his comments back and, of course, he never apologizes for anything.

That’s Donald in a nutshell:  Not an alpha male so much as a broad, lazy stereotype of an alpha male.  The sort of guy you’d imagine tearing through a frat house, until you realize that fraternities have honor codes and would never accept someone whose only abiding passions are money and himself.

So for him to look America in the eye and say, “I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament,” one of two things must be true:  Either he doesn’t understand what the word “temperament” means—a theory that has not escaped the internet’s notice—or he is simply living in his own fictional universe where behaving like a spoiled, petulant child makes you a paragon of virtue.

By now, just about every psychologist in America has diagnosed Trump with narcissistic personality disorder—not that a professional opinion was required—but my own biggest worry about his mental state concerns his love for projection, a related disorder otherwise known as, “I know you are, but what am I?”  Whether he’s attacking Ted Cruz for being “nasty,” Elizabeth Warren for being “racist,” or Hillary Clinton for being “unhinged,” “unbalanced” and having “extraordinarily bad judgment and instincts,” Trump is truly a connoisseur of seeing in everyone else what everyone else sees in him.

Bearing this pattern in mind, his I-have-a-great-temperament line was essentially the inverse of this same quirk—an attempt to fraudulently absorb a positive trait, rather than fraudulently deflect a negative one.

It’s fraud in either case, and the brazenness of it is puzzling for someone who’s supposed to be America’s greatest con man.  It makes you wonder:  If he has drawn more than 40 percent of the vote for lying badly, how much better would he be doing if he were capable of lying well?

Hence our working hypothesis that he isn’t fully aware that he’s doing it, which would help to explain how someone can successfully deceive half the country while simultaneously being laughed at by the other half—how he can make himself a fool while thinking himself a genius.

If all else fails, there’s always our fallback theory that he’s throwing the election in the most entertaining possible way, so that the world never finds out what happens when America is ruled by a man who can’t see three feet in front of him.  If the remaining two debates are anything like the first, he just might succeed yet.

Berned Out

If I have learned anything from the last 10 months of American politics—and “if” is definitely the operative word—it’s that presidential primary campaigns are best enjoyed from afar.

While the fall’s general election will (and should) be an intoxicating fray that unleashes every last passion in every last voter—with the very meaning of America up for grabs—the intraparty process that precedes it is, in the end, just plain unpleasant and depressing.

To be clear:  Here I am obviously not talking about the other party’s pre-convention adventures.  For Democrats and other liberals, this year’s GOP contest has unquestionably been the greatest reality show on Earth—a laugh-a-minute roller coaster of lunacy that has called into question the very existence of the bottom of the barrel—and I take it on faith that dyed-in-the-wool conservatives feel similarly about the nonsense occurring on the other side of the aisle.

But let’s not kid ourselves:  Within the ranks of the respective parties, the 2016 election to date has been one long, terrible dirge that cannot end soon enough and—because life is nothing if not unfair—will almost surely go on forever.

It may seem like a distant memory now, but there was a time—a solid half-year, in fact—when the Democratic Party contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders (and, for a few minutes, Martin O’Malley) was held up as a model of civility, maturity and class—a high-minded exchange of ideas blissfully bereft of pettiness and ad hominem snipes, thereby serving as a dramatic counterpoint to the hysterical buffoonery breaking out over on the right.

Today—with 38 contests in the books and 19 still to go—the tenor of the Democratic race is looking increasingly and crushingly similar to the sort of infantile gobbledygook that liberals were so sure they could (and, for a time, did) rise above.

At this moment, the clash between Clinton and Sanders—and, perhaps more potently, between their loyal fans—has become exactly what both sides vowed it would not:  A volley of character-based taunts and insinuations whereby one’s support for the “wrong” candidate is a direct reflection of one’s integrity and intelligence and not rooted in, say, an honest disagreement over principle or—heaven forbid!—a difference of opinion about the meaning of a set of facts.

Democrats like to think of themselves as the smarter and more grown-up of America’s two political franchises, but that claim has become progressively less credible over the last several weeks.  Speaking as a—well, not technically a Democrat, but certainly a Democrat-adjacent—I regret to note this is the first time in memory that I have become disappointed—and in some cases, slightly disgusted—by the behavior of many members of my own ideological club—in particular, fellow admirers of a certain senator from Vermont.

In this, I don’t just mean the Bernie Bros—those piggish frat boys who have been mansplaining their way across the Internet in the vain hope that (female) Clinton supporters will finally see the light and realize that Sanders has been their one true love all along.  You know, because what could be more irresistible than being told you’re a credulous dolt by someone sipping from a barrel of Kool-Aid and wearing a tinfoil hat?

No, the bigger problem is the stubborn determination among nearly all members of Team Sanders not to recognize their candidate’s greatest flaws and—upon being informed of them—refusing to engage the notion that their hero might not be as perfect as they think he is.

I’ve written many flattering words about Sanders throughout this long cycle.  I should note—if it wasn’t already clear—that my support for him has always been predicated on two essential facts:  First, that he has strongly and consistently held a set of political opinions—a vision of how America should be, as it were—that is in near-perfect alignment with my own.  And second, that he is an honest, dignified person who was completely sincere in wanting to run an entirely issues-based campaign.

What I did not weigh in my decision-making process, however, were a) the odds of Sanders securing the nomination, b) the feasibility of his actually being elected president, and c) the likely consequences of an eventual Sanders administration.

In other words, my Bernie bias has never been contingent on the notion that he could get Congress to do his bidding, that “breaking up the big banks” would be a manageable task or, indeed, that the arithmetic underpinning his most ambitious policy proposals makes any kind of mathematical sense.

I have doubts about all of those things, and I’m sorry to say that the man himself has not been terribly effective in alleviating these utterly reasonable concerns.  By my calculations, the present Congress is in no particular mood to fund—through any means—such radical concepts as free public universities or genuinely universal healthcare.  By economists’ calculations, Sanders’ own budget for these initiatives is based on a series of absurdly optimistic assumptions about how the U.S. economy will behave over the next decade or more.

Most damning of all, perhaps, is the following insight offered recently in a blog post by Robin Alperstein:

“Sanders has spent his life taking positions from a deeply ideological point of view, and has done so without having to ever really consider or answer for the consequences of his positions, because he’s so often been in the minority taking a protestor’s position.  But a commander-in-chief and a president has to govern in real time and from a place of reality, not ideology, and must balance many competing interests and constituencies—two things Sanders not only has never done, but has demonstrated he has no interest in doing.  It is not clear he even knows how.”

While the above is not completely accurate and is tinged with biases of its own—Alperstein opens the piece by saying, “I can barely stand [Sanders’] face”—the charge that Sanders is ultimately ill-suited to the particular demands of this job is a compelling one—or at least serious enough to give any honest person a moment’s pause:  Knowing what we know about how our government actually functions—as opposed to how we want it to function—are we sure that, in electing a firebrand like Sanders, we’d really be getting what we think we want?  Do we have any empirical evidence to suggest in the affirmative, other than our wildest hopes and dreams?

Maybe Bernie Sanders is exactly what he looks like:  An advocate and agitator for left-wing causes that most of the Democratic Party has either abandoned or neutered to within an inch of their lives.  Maybe he is actually more useful in a less-powerful position:  By not having 300 million masters, he remains free to say exactly what he thinks and stay true to himself and his fellow travelers.  Maybe an ideological contortionist like Hillary Clinton, even if not a better person, would nonetheless make a better president.

Or maybe Sanders is the second coming of Franklin Roosevelt and we don’t appreciate how lucky we’d be to have him.  It’s an unknowable question—until it becomes knowable, that is—and so we are left to conjecture based on the available information.

Among all of that raw data, the one nugget I can never quite shake is how, when you lay Clinton’s and Sanders’ platforms side by side, you realize that at least 90 percent of their core beliefs are utterly interchangeable.  That with the (significant) exception of foreign policy, Hillary and Bernie are in basic agreement on virtually every issue under the sun.  They may differ about how (and with how much enthusiasm) to solve certain problems, but they are in perfect harmony about what those problems are.

That’s what is so depressing about the way millions of Democrats are worshiping at the altar of one candidate while burning the other in effigy.  It just goes to show how the millennial college campus ethos of getting 100 percent of what you want while banishing even the hint of an unwelcome thought has metastasized into the broader culture.  As recently suggested by one Susan Sarandon, certain Democratic voters would willingly surrender to a President Trump or President Cruz rather than sucking it up and voting for someone with whom they agree 90 percent of the time.

Such is the corrosive effect of presidential primary campaigns:  They turn ideological friends and allies into mortal enemies and existential threats to the continuing health of the republic.

They’re not.  They’re members of your own team and if you want even a fraction of your political desires indulged by our next commander-in-chief, you’re going to need them in your corner (and vice versa) from now until November 8 and beyond.

So knock it off.  Quit making the perfect the enemy of the pretty good.  Don’t let your ideals blind you to reality and—whatever you do—don’t even think about staying home on Election Day just because your favorite candidate’s name didn’t quite make it onto the final ballot.

Throwing a tantrum when things don’t go your way?  That sounds like something Trump would do.

Vote for Burr!

“I’ve never agreed with Jefferson once / we’ve fought on like 75 different fronts / but when all is said and all is done / Jefferson has beliefs / Burr has none.”

So raps America’s first treasury secretary at a critical moment toward the end of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sublime remix of U.S. history that has taken Broadway (and my iTunes library) by storm.  The moment occurs in the heat of the presidential election of 1800—a campaign that is still considered the ugliest and most over-the-top in history—which saw an Electoral College tie between the top two candidates, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, meaning the presidency would ultimately be decided by the House of Representatives.

As congressmen remained deadlocked after 35 rounds of voting, it fell to Alexander Hamilton to act as unofficial kingmaker.  And what a nauseating choice it was:  Jefferson, as leader of the rival Democratic-Republicans, had long served as Hamilton’s singular political nemesis.  Burr, meanwhile, had once been a fellow Federalist but abruptly switched parties in 1790 to run—successfully—for the U.S. Senate against Philip Schuyler, a respected Federalist who also happened to be Hamilton’s father-in-law.

In short, the choice in 1800 was between a man who embodied everything Hamilton hated and a man who embodied nothing at all except sheer, naked ambition.  In the end, Hamilton sided with Jefferson, the House followed suit and the rest…well, you know the rest.

(Prior to the vote, Hamilton had effectively killed off incumbent President John Adams with a 54-page pamphlet attacking his administration.)

I recount this pivotal episode in American electoral history partly as a rebuttal to the longstanding myth that the Founding Fathers were essentially perfect.  That in addition to being uncommonly learned and intelligent, they were also uncommonly virtuous and civil and refreshingly devoid of any pettiness or ego.  That they sacrificed everything—their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor—for the noble cause of American independence, wholly unencumbered by personal agendas or other selfish interests.  That, in short, they were totally unlike the lowly political leaders we’re stuck with today.

Deep down, of course, we know that most of the above is complete nonsense.  We have read first-hand accounts of the founding era for eons and understand how personally and tragically flawed the authors of America truly were.

With Hamilton—arguably the richest and most historically accurate depiction of the founding ever created (in spirit, if not in verse)—we have been given a singularly visceral insight into how those flaws actually played themselves out.  How, for instance, a certain orphan immigrant had his life cut short—likely by several decades—because he dared to question the honor of another man and, when challenged, couldn’t summon the nerve to take it back.

The rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr is the stuff of legend, although until recently the intrigue had been confined to their famous duel on July 11, 1804—a face-off that ended Hamilton’s life and Burr’s career.  In fact, their relationship ran more or less continuously from 1776 onward, and in Miranda’s play, Burr is both the narrator and co-protagonist.

In a show that aims to narrow the gulf between yesterday and today—and thus make the past more accessible to us in the present—the decision to grant Burr such narrative primacy has proved eerily prescient to our contemporary political climate.

After all, we are right now engaged in a sustained national debate about whether the likely Republican presidential nominee is—to quote Maureen Dowd—“more like Hitler, Mussolini, Idi Amin, George Wallace or a Marvel villain.”  Donald Trump, in any case, is widely recognized as a man with no core convictions except to become the most powerful man on Earth and, to that end, a man willing to alter his views at the drop of his dopey red hat.

In this way, Donald Trump is Aaron Burr.

What is more, should the GOP contest lead to an open convention in July—an increasingly plausible scenario—Republican delegates will be confronted with a strikingly similar prospect to that faced by Hamilton in 1800:  Should they allow the party—and possibly the country—to be ruled by someone whose only objective is the acquisition of unlimited power?

The party’s dilemma, of course, is that there is no Jeffersonian figure to save them from themselves.  There is, instead, Senator Ted Cruz—a candidate who is nominally an across-the-board conservative but is also, alas, a smarmy, cynical narcissist with no friends or accomplishments to speak of.  (Jefferson, however ambitious, was at least capable of feigning humility.)

In fact, it is America’s non-Republicans who now gaze upon the GOP primary with the same horror as when Hamilton was forced to choose between Jefferson and Burr.  It’s been a nagging question for us liberals:  Assuming no other alternatives, do you go for the guy who is decent enough to believe in something—albeit the opposite of everything you believe in—or is it preferable to roll the dice with someone who only believes in himself and, thus, could possibly be dealt with under certain conditions?

For a good long while, I leaned ever-so-slightly toward the latter, figuring that in a country whose major global enemies are apocalyptic religious fundamentalists, the last thing we need is to elect a fundamentalist of our own.  (Say what you will about Trump, but I find his rank indifference to religion among his more reassuring qualities.)

But now I’m not so sure.  While I foresee no universe in which the politics of Ted Cruz suddenly become tolerable—to say nothing of Cruz himself—there is an equally compelling argument that someone like Cruz would at least bring a certain predictability to the presidency that a reckless barbarian like Trump—by his own boastful admission—would not.

In 1800, Hamilton and others viewed Burr as not just unprincipled but as outright dangerous to the continued health of the nascent republic—not least because of his inherent unknowability and bottomless opportunism.  Indeed, isn’t it more or less tautological that men with no firm concept of good are the most liable to commit evil?  As Hamilton asks early in the play, “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?”

That, in a sense, points to the arguments both for and against Donald Trump.  By standing for nothing in particular, he becomes capable of pretty much anything, good and bad.  By choreographing a willingness to hedge, hem and haw as circumstances require, he suggests a capacity to be all things to all people—or, conversely, nothing to no one.  By steadfastly refusing to box himself into a consistent and coherent set of political views, he conjures the image of a man existing outside the box entirely, for better and for worse.

Among those who are so exasperated by Washington, D.C., that they want to blow the whole damn place to smithereens, Trump’s pitch may well make perfect, if perverse, sense.  In this moment, maybe a human wrecking ball is just what the doctor ordered.

Or maybe—just maybe—Trump is exactly what he looks like:  A clueless, shameless charlatan who will be utterly in over his head in the Oval Office and will realize—however belatedly—that however much he wanted the job at first, he never really had a plan for following through.

And yet—as farcical as it seems now—it’s still possible that November’s election will see the final victory of Aaron Burr.  Wait for it:  History is happening in Manhattan, and the world will never be the same.

The Battle of New York

Back in January, Ted Cruz floated a novel, but pointed, line of attack against Republican frontrunner Donald Trump:  The latter shouldn’t be his party’s standard bearer, Cruz argued, on the grounds that he represents “New York values.”

Now that it appears Trump will, in fact, be the GOP nominee and will likely square off against fellow New Yorker Hillary Clinton in the fall, we might as well take a moment to glance at Cruz’s diagnosis and say, “Well, so much for that.”

If things continue on their current trajectory—an admittedly dubious assumption—the 2016 election will not merely be a showcase for so-called New York values:  It will be an outright endorsement of and/or surrender to the same.

That may seem like an unlikely and counterintuitive conclusion to draw at this particular moment in history, but there you have it.  Donald Trump was born in Queens in 1946 and has never identified with any other metropolis, while Hillary Clinton moved her family to nearby Chappaqua in the fall of 1999 and has held court in and around there ever since.

For all intents and purposes—for better and for worse—a Trump-Clinton race would be a Subway Series for the soul of America, during which the very notion of “New York values” would be fairly up for grabs, demonstrating yet again that the five boroughs do not comprise the Greatest City in the World by accident and that if you want to truly understand America, you can’t do much better than waking up in the city that never sleeps.

There’s certainly no great mystery as to why New York, of all places, has produced such a disproportionate stock of serious presidential contenders through the years.  (Since 1904, New Yorkers have run against each other in three different presidential elections.)  The city, forever and always, is such a crowded, competitive, high-stakes environment for anyone with high ambitions—be they political, financial or cultural—that it’s only natural for someone who finds any measure of success there to think he or she has the mettle to conquer the rest of the universe as well.

In this respect, Ted Cruz is absolutely right about Donald Trump embodying the city from whence he came.  After all, what could be more of a singularly New York sensibility than buying up zillions of dollars of precious Manhattan real estate, slapping your name on every last inch of it, and then sitting in a room thinking, “You know, it’s about time that I really made something of my life”?

By all means, not every inhabitant of this town harbors such an absurd, colossal level of self-regard—such a hunger to expand their brand and rule the world in every way they know how.  And even among those who do, few have such a comically-inflated ego or speak in such horrifyingly crude, prejudicial tones.  For every arrogant blowhard like Trump or Michael Bloomberg, the city also produces such luminous national treasures as Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose seismic new musical Hamilton reflects the city at its most noble:  A beacon of opportunity, welcoming to immigrants, artists, thinkers and revolutionaries.

Indeed, New York City is nothing if not a million different things at once, attracting a million different types of people, each finding his or her own way in the world.  That’s the beauty and the madness of the place and the primary reason that folks from all over the world have been flocking there since the Dutch Republic first landed in 1624.

If Trump represents one strand of what New York symbolizes, Hillary Clinton represents another strand entirely—a strand, oddly enough, that comes pretty close to the definition offered by Ted Cruz.

Said Cruz during a Republican debate, “Everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro-gay marriage [and] focus around money and the media.”

Cruz was attacking Trump, not Clinton, but when it comes to the latter, I’d say Cruz was pretty much on the money.

While Hillary Clinton took a bit longer to defend the rights and dignity of gay people than many in her party would have liked, she is now in perfect harmony with the supermajority of New Yorkers on that issue.  Meanwhile, her support for abortion rights has been unerring and unquestioned, as have her views on most other socially liberal causes.

As for the presence of “money and the media”:  You bet your sweet bippy.

Since her national debut as First Lady-in-waiting in 1992, Hillary has been as much of a media character as any other political figure.  Throughout the myriad phases of her public life, newspapers, TV shows and the interwebs have built her up every bit as much as they have torn her down.  As with Trump now, Clinton’s relationship with the press has always been mutually beneficial:  She gives them endless material; in return, they give her endless coverage and the occasional benefit of the doubt.

Then there’s the money, which is arguably the most essential component to Hillary’s candidacy and career.  At this moment, if there is anything that could feasibly lose her the nomination to Bernie Sanders, it’s her unnervingly close relationship to Wall Street and other financial giants in a year that most Democratic voters are prepared to burn the leaders of those institutions in effigy.  Clinton herself assures us that she is equally concerned about the outsize power of Big Money in American life and will make every effort to rectify this imbalance once in office.

The problem—as everyone now knows—is that Clinton has collected nearly $2 million in contributions from various big banks over the last several years.  Officially, these were mere “speaking fees.”  In the minds of millions of Democratic primary voters, they were a down payment.

Here is where the business culture of New York comes into play.  If you are the sort of well-connected, highly-respected insider that both Clintons have become since moving to the Empire State, you would regard giving prime time speeches to major companies as an obvious and uncontroversial part of your job (not to mention an easy and painless way to make a buck).

However, for someone outside of that uber-capitalist milieu, it looks awfully shady for a supposed big bank antagonist to accept millions of dollars from big banks and then claim that the money will have no effect on how she treats those corporations as commander-in-chief.

I am reminded—unavoidably—of the moment in 2013 when John Oliver, pinch-hitting for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, confronted Senator Kirsten Gillibrand about her own six-figure income from companies like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase.  “What I deeply want to know,” said Oliver, “is what do you have to do for that?  What is required of you for that money?”  That Gillibrand didn’t even attempt to answer Oliver’s query is, in a way, more damning than any explanation she might have given.

Need I mention which state Senator Gillibrand represents?

That Hillary Clinton apparently doesn’t understand how anyone could find fault with her particular financial arrangement is, itself, her biggest problem of all.  She has become so insulated in the universe of pay-for-play that she either a) doesn’t recognize open bribery when she sees it, or b) doesn’t think the voters are clever enough to recognize it themselves.  They say no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people; I guess soon enough we’ll find out for sure.

In any case, this year it looks like it’s really gonna happen:  New York vs. New York, and the rest of the country will just have to deal with it.  No doubt those who share Ted Cruz’s worldview will find this situation intolerable.  As someone who lived in the New York metro area for 10 years and still visits from time to time, I consider this geographic quirk among the saving graces of this ridiculous campaign.

Donald Trump, if nominated, would be far and away the most inappropriate presidential candidate in my lifetime, for reasons I have outlined over and over again.  If elected, the damage he would inflict upon the United States is almost too horrific to contemplate.  However, taking all of that as a given and knowing that I would never abandon my country for such paltry reasons as those, I’d much prefer a pigheaded Republican president from New York to, say, someone like Ted Cruz.

There’s that old adage, “He’s an idiot, but he’s our idiot,” and that is my feeling about Trump.  If the GOP insists upon nominating a maniac for the highest office in the land, at least the maniac in question will have spent virtually his whole life marinating in one of the most vital, cosmopolitan, enlightened cities on planet Earth—and is damned proud of having done so.  I don’t see eye to eye with Trump about much, but the conviction that New York is the true capital of the United States—the city that most fully captures America in all of its glory, beauty and absurdity—well, that’s one value about which we are in total agreement, and that is slightly better than nothing.

Out of Iowa

In his inaugural State of the Commonwealth address last week, Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker said he could sum up his first year in office in one phrase:  “Don’t be surprised when you get surprised.”

It’s the sort of laconic, practical wisdom for which Baker has become known and liked around these parts.  (He is currently the most popular governor in the country, despite being a Republican in a sea of liberalism.)  Specifically, Baker was referring to such surprises as a massive budget deficit and the most ridiculous winter in the history of Boston.

In fact, at this moment, “Don’t be surprised when you get surprised” is possibly the most valuable advice any of us could ask for.

Why?  Because Monday is the Iowa Caucus, that’s why.

Yup.  After years of anticipation (or so it feels), we have finally made it to the official opening bell of the 2016 presidential campaign.  For all the pontificating that has occurred throughout the past year, Monday’s gathering in the Hawkeye State will be the first time actual humans cast actual votes for actual candidates.

Notwithstanding all the imperfections inherent in the caucus system—really, the whole process is nothing but imperfections—on Tuesday morning, we will have a much clearer sense of where the race stands than we do now.  And if there is one thing I can impart by way of context, it is not to be surprised when you get surprised.  Something weird is going to happen, and you might as well be prepared for it.

I don’t mean to suggest that I know what that surprise will be.  I haven’t the slightest idea who’s going to win the Iowa Caucus—or place second or third—nor do I know how those results will affect the 49 primaries and caucuses to come.

That’s not the point.  The point is:  Nobody else knows, either.

Hundreds—if not thousands—of polls have been conducted by dozens of organizations in the past year regarding the 2016 election, but the truth is that not a single person (with the possible exception of Nate Silver) can make a head or tail of what they mean.  Some pundits are dignified enough to admit it.  Most are not.

To be honest, I was all set to go into depth about the futility of presidential opinion polls, but New York Times columnist Frank Bruni beat me to the punch.  “We’re leaning harder than ever on polling precisely when that makes the least sense,” Bruni wrote last Sunday.  “We’re wallowing in polls even as they come to wildly different conclusions that should give us serious pause.”

Bruni’s best example of this (mine, too) is the fact that last week—on the exact same day—two separate surveys were released in New Hampshire showing a 3-point margin between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in the first case, and a 27-point margin in the second.

Yup:  Same state, same week, same candidates, 24-point difference.

In an ideal world, that would be all we need to know about the uselessness of opinion-mongering as a predictor of who’s going to be the next president.  For Pete’s sake, if two reputable organizations can disagree that much about something that’s supposed to be so scientific, on what basis can we trust any statistic purporting to represent the views of the voting public?

The bottom line—as statisticians will tell you—is that the results of any single poll don’t mean a damn thing.  When it comes to elections, all that really matters is when a whole bunch of polls manage to agree with each other.  If one result says Sanders leads by 3 while another says he leads by 27, all we know for sure is that we don’t know anything for sure.  But if two—or three or four—organizations say Sanders leads by 3, well, now we’re getting somewhere.

In fact, quite often we have gotten relative consistency among the many outfits measuring the presidential race.  Indeed, the reason we all think Donald Trump truly is the GOP frontrunner is that he has placed first in just about every survey that has been taken in the past six months.  (All except four, to be precise.)  That—for better or worse—is what you call a pattern.

But patterns can be deceiving.  Just because you win the first 18 games of the season doesn’t mean you’ll win the Super Bowl, and a presidential candidate who spends an eternity as the “favorite” doesn’t necessarily win the first primary.

Surely, the 2008 election proved this once and for all.  Hillary Clinton—the Trump in that contest, as it were—spent the entirety of 2007 as the “inevitable” Democratic nominee, then suddenly placed third in the Iowa Caucus, behind both Barack Obama and John Edwards.  With that, the narrative changed overnight from “Hillary has it all wrapped up” to “Obama is going all the way.”

Over the next few days, polls and pundits predicted Obama would not only prevail in the New Hampshire primary, but that it would be a rout—possibly a double-digit victory for the newbie from the South Side.

And what actually happened?  You guessed it:  Clinton won the Granite State by 2.6 points.

As a consequence of the Iowa-New Hampshire split, the nomination fight continued, state by state, until the bitter end.  Clinton did not formally concede until June 7—four days after the final votes had been cast.  By then, the entire electorate had been put through the proverbial wringer, fostering many years of bitterness between operatives of the two campaigns.

Could something like that happen in 2016?  You bet your sweet bippy it could—possibly in both parties, and definitely in the 12-person GOP.  Ask yourself:  Do Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie strike you as the sort of men who would go gently into that good night?  Does Bernie Sanders?  We know Clinton’s not going anywhere until the last dog dies, so why should we expect either of these contests to wrap up with all deliberate speed?  What, may I ask, is the hurry?

The final presidential primary is June 14.  I would be very surprised if we knew both parties’ nominees before then.  Indeed, I don’t see why the Republican race shouldn’t go all the way to the party convention in July (on the 40th anniversary of the last time such a thing occurred).

Then again, in a year in which we have come to expect the unexpected, perhaps a swift and clean primary season would be the most unexpected outcome of all.  Maybe the whole thing will be settled by Tuesday morning, leaving us to enjoy the next six months in peace.

That would certainly be a surprise.  Considering how much fun we’ve had so far, it would not necessarily be a welcome one.

Cruz Out of Control

Is it just me, or is Ted Cruz the most transparently cynical politician on planet Earth?

In the interest of charity, let’s say it’s just me.  After all, there are plenty of cynical people in politics, and picking out the cynical-est of them all is a bit like choosing which Oscar nominee is the most Caucasian:  In the end, why not just call it a tie?

Yet it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, even among the most craven of presidential contenders, the junior senator from Texas is in a league all his own.  While this has been true from the moment he appeared on the scene, his steady ascension in the polls has made his abject wretchedness a matter of national concern.

Indeed, the sheer chutzpah infused in every sentence that comes out of Cruz’s mouth is a wonder to behold, as you realize we’re dealing with someone who will say and do just about anything to become the next Republican nominee—and, presumably, the next president—and who apparently has no understanding of the word “shame.”

If we wanted to be succinct about this, we could merely cite his recent Duck Dynasty-themed TV ad and call it a day.  (Seriously, how many hours were devoted to that face paint?)  Or we could revisit that time he cooked bacon by wrapping it around the muzzle of a machine gun and firing away.  (No, dear reader, that moment was not a hallucination.)

Truly, in the realm of primary season pandering, Cruz is a visionary and a prophet.  You sense that if he could win 15 more votes by skinning a live raccoon and wearing its carcass as a hat, he would do so without a moment’s pause—with a big, fat smile on his face.

Which brings us to the $1.6 billion question:  Is Ted Cruz as stupid as he looks?

Answer:  Absolutely not.  A graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law and a nationally-recognized debater at both, Cruz is arguably the most intellectually formidable person in the GOP field, capable of processing complex ideas in ways that most other public figures don’t even attempt.  If you’re a Republican voter who values smarts above all else, Ted is most assuredly your man.

Herein lies the paradox and the punch line, which is that Cruz’s long-term electoral success depends almost entirely on garnering the support of idiots—folks who, at best, don’t give a rat’s ass about a fancy Ivy League education and, at worst, are openly contemptuous of those who have one.

Cruz understands as well as anybody that his only hope of winning the nomination is by pretending to be a total dunderhead, and damned if he isn’t giving it the old college try.  He is not going to let a little thing like dignity get in the way of becoming the most powerful man on Earth.

In this sense, Cruz doesn’t employ cynicism so much as he embodies it.  While the word “cynicism” has been used rather haphazardly in our public discourse over the years, it can best be defined here as purposefully saying something false in the understanding that your audience is too dumb to know the difference.

Up to now, Donald Trump’s birtherism has arguably been the gold standard on this front.  From the beginning, Trump knew perfectly well that Barack Obama was born in the United States and was constitutionally qualified to be president.  And yet, once he made the calculation (rather brilliantly, I must say) that there were enough ignorant rubes with whom he could build a base of support for his eventual foray into politics, he embraced the “Obama was secretly born in Kenya” conspiracy theory whole hog and—presto chango!—he is now the most popular Republican in U.S. politics.

Into this deranged, noxious atmosphere, Ted Cruz materialized last fall with possibly the most cynical public pose of all:  Embracing Trump as a swell guy with a lot of really good points.

Recall, if you will, that while Trump was inexplicably rising in stature with one galling, infantile comment after another, all of his GOP counterparts denounced and distanced themselves from him—except for Ted Cruz.  As Trump was called a “blowhard” by Jeb Bush and a “buffoon” by Rand Paul, Cruz all but linked arms with the Donald, insisting that the latter had his finger to the GOP winds and should not be so quickly discounted as some kind of unhinged carnival barker (thank you, Martin O’Malley).

Politically, it was a bold move for Cruz to align himself with a man with no apparent moral compass—someone willing to alienate virtually every racial and ethnic group in America as a means of taking over the GOP.  Like Trump himself, Cruz wagered that there were enough bigots and paranoids in the electorate to comprise a plurality of Republican primary voters, and that if those fine, upstanding citizens ever soured on Trump, why shouldn’t Cruz position himself as their next-best bet?

It seemed like an insane gambit at the time:  Trump was clearly a disaster waiting to happen and who in his right mind would tag along with that?

As it turned out—in a predictably unpredictable manner—Cruz’s low opinion of Republican voters proved 100 percent accurate, and he has benefitted from their credulity every step of the way.  While Trump remains as admired as ever, Cruz is in the best possible position to absorb Trump voters in the event of a flameout.  For Cruz, short of actually being in the lead, everything has gone precisely according to plan.

In the past few days, of course, all hell has broken loose as the unofficial détente between Trump and Cruz has officially come to an end.  Suddenly vulnerable, Trump has begun treating Cruz as disrespectfully as all his other rivals, while Cruz has finally—finally!—hinted as to what he really thinks about his party’s bully-in-chief.

While I haven’t the slightest idea how the average Republican primary voter is taking this drastic turn of events, I think I speak for most leftists and other non-Republicans in calling this the most entertaining clash of the entire 2016 race.  All presidential campaigning is crack to political junkies, but Trump v. Cruz is a veritable eight ball of excitement, and it’s going to produce one hell of a hangover when all is said and done.

Why is this fight different from all other fights?  Easy:  Because neither fighter has the slightest shred of integrity or self-awareness and—perhaps not coincidentally—both are born showmen and narcissists concerned with the fortunes of no one but themselves.

To wit:  When Trump was exchanging insults with, say, Jeb Bush, the tiff was implicitly a battle between lunacy and reason, with Bush assuming the mantle of the latter as an antidote to the former.

Against Cruz, the rules of engagement have managed to achieve an added level of ridiculousness, as neither man has the faintest interest in moderation, decorum or intellectual coherence.  By every known account, Ted Cruz is the most personally unpleasant member of the U.S. Senate, particularly among those in his own party.  It might seem odd that a man of such intelligence and education would be so detested by his fellow Republicans—that is, until you realize that he channels every modicum of his rhetorical gifts to advance his own selfish interests (read:  being elected president), often in the most heavy-handed and theatrical way possible.

Indeed, we can’t know whether Cruz means a word of what he says, because—much like Trump—every syllable is uttered entirely for effect, without regard for the consequences of turning those words into actions.

Lately, for instance, Cruz has mused about “carpet bomb[ing] ISIS into oblivion,” partly to find out “if sand can glow in the dark.”  While we have all expressed such sentiments about how we would personally handle terrorism—typically in a college dorm at 4 o’clock in the morning after 10 or 12 drinks—to hear a sober grown-up say them in the middle of the afternoon—well, it’s a bit like those closet cases who are little too effusive about how much they love women.  There is a whiff of phoniness and overcompensation in the air.

Except that doesn’t matter with Cruz, because his target audience is precisely the sort of gang that eats that stuff up and thinks all problems can be solved with apocalyptic violence.  Since Trump’s attitude on this is virtually identical to Cruz’s (on ISIS:  “I would bomb the shit out of them”), their matchup is destined to be the most childish, petty and substance-free contest in memory, and there may not be enough popcorn to get us through it.  (At least not after we leave Iowa.)

It was Andrew Sullivan in 2009 who said the Republican Party would get worse before it gets better, but I think even he didn’t foresee just how completely the GOP would disintegrate into nihilism and self-parody.  How even its highest-achieving thinkers would appeal to the lowest common denominator.

At that point, you’ll recall, Sarah Palin was the party’s great shining star—an ideological demagogue who, on the basis of her syntax, was every bit as dumb as she appeared.  How interesting, then, that the current war for the nomination is between two demagogues who, by their backgrounds, are perfectly capable of enlightened, serious leadership but, because of what their party has become, have no plausible route to success except through cynicism and bombast.

Fasten your seatbelts, citizens.  It’s gonna be a bumpy year.