The Limits of Loyalty

Is loyalty a virtue or a sin?  Does the world need more of it, or less?

Donald Trump, in a controversial speech to the Boy Scouts of America on Monday, endorsed the former in no uncertain terms, rambling to the gathering of thousands of teenage boys, “As the Scout Law says, ‘A scout is trustworthy, loyal’—we could use some more loyalty, I will tell you that.”

The subtext of this remark was clear enough to anyone paying attention to current events.  Throughout the past week, the president has been very publicly steaming about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump feels betrayed him by recusing himself from the administration’s Russia imbroglio—and also, apparently, by not investigating Hillary Clinton for God knows what.  In an ongoing series of tweets, Trump has tarred Sessions as “beleaguered” and “VERY weak,” effectively goading him into resigning, lest the abuse continue indefinitely.

The implication—or explication, as the case may be—is that Sessions’s duty as America’s chief law enforcement officer is to protect Donald Trump from the law, not to defend the law against those who violate it, up to and including the commander-in-chief himself.  As Trump made plain in an interview with the New York Times, his hiring of Sessions was predicated on the AG serving the president—not the Constitution.

But then it’s not only Sessions who has found himself the object of Trump’s wrath on the question of absolute allegiance.  Let’s not forget James Comey, the former director of the FBI, who famously met with the president in January, when the latter said, point-blank, “I need loyalty; I expect loyalty.”  Comey’s eventual sacking—like Sessions’s, should it occur—was the result of being insufficiently faithful to the man in the Oval Office.  Of daring to think, and act, for himself.

As someone who has never been leader of the free world—nor, for that matter, held any position of real responsibility—I must confess that I remain skeptical about the value of unconditional submission in one’s day-to-day life and generally regard free agency as the far superior of the two virtues.  Indeed, I would argue (to answer my own question) that “virtue” might be altogether the wrong word to use in this context.

When thinking about loyalty, the question you must ask yourself is:  What, exactly, am I being loyal to?  Is it to a set of principles, or to another human being?  And if you are merely dedicating yourself to a person, what has he or she done to deserve it, and what, if anything, will you be getting in return?

Certainly, the spectacle of Trump demanding total fealty to Trump is the most extreme—and most cartoonish—manifestation of this latter category, since the president has shown minimal interest in reciprocating whatever devotion happens to come his way.  Except with members of his immediate family (so far, anyway), Trump’s modus operandi is to ask for everything and give nothing back.  Part and parcel of being a textbook sociopath, Trump views his fellow humans purely as a means to an end and rarely, if ever, stops to think how he might make their lives easier in the process.  It does not occur to him to treat people with respect for its own sake.  If anything, he views empathy as a sign of weakness.

This behavior may well represent an abuse and perversion of an otherwise useful human trait, but that hardly makes a difference when considering the enormous political power of the man doing the perverting.

Which brings us—by way of analogy—to Adolf Hitler.

In Germany, beginning in 1934, all members of the armed forces were required to swear a solemn oath—not to Germany, mind you, but to the man at the top.  This vow, or Reichswehreid, read, in part, “To the Leader of the German Empire and people, Adolf Hitler, supreme commander of the armed forces, I shall render unconditional obedience and […] at all times be prepared to give my life for this oath.”  As you might’ve guessed, soldiers who refused to comply tended not to live very long.

If that seems like an extreme and sui generis example of a personality cult run amok, let me remind you of the moment in March 2016 when, at a campaign rally in Florida, Donald Trump implored his adoring crowd to raise their right hands and pledge, “I do solemnly swear that I—no matter how I feel, no matter what the conditions, if there’s hurricanes or whatever—will vote […] for Donald J. Trump for president.”

While a stunt like that doesn’t exactly sink to the depths of the Hitler oath—Trump wasn’t about to jail or murder anyone who opted out—it is nonetheless a profoundly creepy thing for a presidential candidate in a democratic republic to say—particularly when you recall that Trump once reportedly kept an anthology of Hitler’s speeches at his bedside table.  This for a man who can otherwise go years without reading a single book.

That Trump evidently views Hitler as some sort of role model—and is haphazardly aping the Führer’s stylistic flourishes on the campaign trail—ought to give us serious pause about where his own fidelity lies—is it to the nation or himself?—and about whether his pronouncement at the Republican National Convention that he—and he alone—is capable of steering America forward was less an expression of supreme confidence than a barely-veiled threat against those who doubt that a serially-bankrupt con artist is the best man to preside over the largest economy in the world.

The problem, you see, is not that Trump is Hitler.  (He’s not.)  The problem is that he wants to be Hitler—and Mussolini and Saddam Hussein and Vladimir Putin and every other national figurehead who has managed to wield near-absolute authority over his citizenry—often with sarcastically high approval ratings and totally unburdened by the institutional checks and balances that America’s founders so brilliantly installed in 1787.

While Trump’s ultimate ambitions might not be as violent or imperial as those of the men I just listed—in the end, he seems to care about little beyond self-enrichment—the central lesson of the first six months of his administration—plus the first 71 years of his life—is that there is nothing he will not try to get away with at least once.  No sacred cow he will not trample.  No rule he will not bend.  No sin he will not commit.  He is a man of bottomless appetites and zero restraint.  Left to his own devices, he would spend his entire presidency arranging meetings—like the one with his cabinet last month—whose participants did nothing but praise him for being the greatest man in the history of the world.  A Kim Jong-un of the West.

Remember:  The sole reason Trump hasn’t already turned the United States into a full-blown banana republic is that he can’t.  Constitutionally-speaking, the only things stopping him from indulging his basest instincts are Congress, the courts and the American public, and we’ve seen how tenuous all three of those institutions can be.  Should the remaining branches of government fulfill their obligations as a check on executive overreach and malfeasance, we’ll be fine.  Should they falter—thereby providing Trump the untrammeled loyalty he demands—we’ll be in for the longest eight years of our lives.

Eye of the Beholder

Can a piece of art ever exist entirely on its own, or is it always tethered to the context of its creation?

For instance, is it possible to listen to the Ring Cycle without remembering that Richard Wagner was an anti-Semitic prick whose music inspired the rise of Hitler?

Can one watch Manhattan—the story of a 42-year-old man’s love affair with a 17-year-old girl—and not be distracted and/or repulsed by the personal life of its writer, director and star, Woody Allen?

As a society, we’ve had a version of this argument many times before, trying to figure out how to separate the art from the artist, while also debating whether such a thing is even desirable in the first place.  (The answer to both:  “It depends.”)

Lately, however, this perennial question has assumed a racial dimension, compelling us to re-litigate it anew—this time with considerably higher stakes.

Here’s what happened.  Over at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, the curators of the institution’s 78th biennial—an exhibition of hundreds of contemporary works by dozens of artists—chose to include Open Casket, a semi-abstract painting that depicts the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American boy who was tortured and lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white girl.  (The woman in question later admitted she made the whole thing up, but that’s another story.)

As a painting, Open Casket is arresting, with the oils so thickly layered that Till’s mangled face literally protrudes from the canvas, as if calling out to us from beyond the grave.  As a political statement, it fits comfortably into our uncomfortable era of police brutality and racial unease—a natural, even obvious, choice for any socially conscious art show in 2017.

There was just one little problem:  The creator of Open Casket is white.  Specifically, a Midwestern white woman living in Brooklyn named Dana Schutz.

Upon hearing that a Caucasian had dared to tackle Emmett Till as the subject for a painting, many patrons demanded the Whitney remove Open Casket from its walls, while condemning Schutz for attempting to profit off of black pain—a practice, they argued, that has defined—and defiled—white culture since before the founding of the republic, and should be discouraged at all costs.  The message, in effect, was that white people should stick to their own history and allow black people to deal with theirs.

In response to this brouhaha, the Whitney defended its inclusion of Schutz’s work without directly addressing the race question, while Schutz herself issued a statement that read, in part, “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America.  But I do know what it is like to be a mother.  Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son.  I thought about the possibility of painting it only after listening to interviews with her.  In her sorrow and rage she wanted her son’s death not just to be her pain but America’s pain.”

In other words:  Far from being exploitative or opportunistic, Open Casket is meant as an act of compassion and empathy toward black America from an artist who views Emmett Till’s death as a tragedy for all Americans—not just black ones.

Of course, that is merely Dana Schutz’s own interpretation of her work, and if history teaches us anything, it’s that the meaning of a given cultural artifact is never limited to what its creator might have intended at the time.  The artist Hannah Black, one of Schutz’s critics, is quite right in observing, “[I]f black people are telling her that the painting has caused unnecessary hurt, she […] must accept the truth of this.”

The real question, then, is whether offensiveness—inadvertent or not—is enough to justify removing a piece of art from public view, as Black and others have advocated in this case.

If, like me, you believe the First Amendment is more or less absolute—that all forms of honest expression are inherently useful in a free society—then the question answers itself.  Short of inciting a riot (and possibly not even then), no art museum should be compelled to censor itself so as not to hurt the feelings of its most sensitive patrons, however justified those feelings might be.  Au contraire:  If a museum isn’t offending somebody—thereby sparking a fruitful conversationit probably isn’t worth visiting in the first place.

Unfortunately, in the Age of Trump, the American left has decided the First Amendment is negotiable—that its guarantee of free speech can, and should, be suspended whenever the dignity of a vulnerable group is threatened.  That so-called “hate speech” is so inherently destructive—so wounding, so cruel—that it needn’t be protected by the Constitution at all.  As everyone knows, if there was one thing the Founding Fathers could not abide, it was controversy.

What is most disturbing about this liberal drift toward total political correctness is the creative slippery slope it has unleashed—and the abnegation of all nuance and moral perspective that goes with it—of which the Whitney kerfuffle is but the latest example.

See, it’s one thing if Open Casket had been painted by David Duke—that is, if it had been an openly racist provocation by a callous, genocidal lunatic.  But it wasn’t:  It was painted by a mildly-entitled white lady from Brooklyn who has a genuine concern for black suffering and wants more Americans to know what happened to Emmett Till.

And yet, in today’s liberal bubble factory, even that is considered too unseemly for public consumption and must be stamped out with all deliberate speed.  Here in 2017, the line of acceptable artistic practice has been moved so far downfield that an artist can only explore the meaning of life within his or her own racial, ethnic or socioeconomic group, because apparently it’s impossible and counterproductive to creatively empathize with anyone with a different background from yours.

By this standard, Kathryn Bigelow should not have directed The Hurt Locker, since, as a woman, she could not possibly appreciate the experience of being a male combat soldier in Iraq.  Nor, for that matter, should Ang Lee have tackled Brokeback Mountain, because what on Earth does a straight Taiwanese man like him know about surreptitious homosexual relationships in the remote hills of Wyoming?  Likewise, light-skinned David Simon evidently had no business creating Treme or The Wire, while Bob Dylan should’ve steered clear of Hattie Carroll and Rubin Carter as characters in two of his most politically-charged songs.

Undoubtedly there are some people who agree with all of the above, and would proscribe any non-minority from using minorities as raw material for his or her creative outlet (and vice versa).

However, if one insists on full-bore racial and ethnic purity when it comes to the arts, one must also reckon with its consequences—namely, the utter negation of most of the greatest art ever created by man (and woman).  As I hope those few recent examples illustrate, this whole theory that only the members of a particular group are qualified to tell the story of that group is a lie.  An attractive, romantic and sensible lie, to be sure—but a lie nonetheless.

The truth—for those with the nerve to face it—is that although America’s many “communities” are ultimately defined by the qualities that separate them from each other—certainly, no one would mistake the black experience for the Jewish experience, or the Chinese experience for the Puerto Rican experience—human nature itself remains remarkably consistent across all known cultural subgroups.  As such, even if an outsider to a particular sect cannot know what it is like to be of that group, the power of empathy is (or can be) strong enough to allow one to know—or at least estimate—how such a thing feels.

As a final example, consider Moonlight—the best movie of 2016, according to me and the Academy (in that order).  A coming-of-age saga told in three parts, Moonlight has been universally lauded as one of the great cinematic depictions of black life in America—and no wonder, since its director, Barry Jenkins, grew up in the same neighborhood as the film’s hero, Chiron, and is, himself, black.

Slightly less commented on—but no less noteworthy—is Moonlight’s masterful meditation on what it’s like to be gay—specifically, to be a gay, male teenager in an environment where heterosexuality and masculinity are one and the same, and where being different—i.e., soft-spoken, sensitive and unsure—can turn you into a marked man overnight, and the only way to save yourself is to pretend—for years on end—to be someone else.

Now, my own gay adolescence was nowhere near as traumatic as Chiron’s—it wasn’t traumatic at all, really—yet I found myself overwhelmed by the horrible verisimilitude of every detail of Chiron’s reckoning with his emerging self.  Here was a portrait of nascent homosexuality that felt more authentic than real life—something that cannot possibly be achieved in film unless the men on both sides of the camera have a deep and intimate understanding of the character they’re developing.

Well, guess what:  They didn’t.  For all the insights Moonlight possesses on this subject, neither Barry Jenkins, the director, nor a single one of the leading actors is gay.  While they may well have drawn from their own brushes with adversity to determine precisely who this young man is—while also receiving a major assist from the film’s (gay) screenwriter, Tarell Alvin McCraney—the finished product is essentially a bold leap of faith as to what the gay experience is actually like.

Jenkins and his actors had no reason—no right, according to some—to pull this off as flawlessly as they did, and yet they did.  How?  Could it be that the condition of being black in this country—of feeling perpetually ill at ease, guarded and slightly out of place in one’s cultural milieu—has a clear, if imprecise, parallel to the condition of being gay, such that to have a deep appreciation of one is to give you a pretty darned good idea of the other?  And, by extension, that to be one form of human being is to be empowered to understand—or attempt to understand—the point of view of another?  And that this just might be a good thing after all?

Character Is Destiny

Donald Trump has been president for all of two weeks, yet already he has proved himself the most brazenly Nixonian person to ever sit in the Oval Office—Richard Nixon included.

How much of a paranoid megalomaniac is our new commander-in-chief?  Well, for starters, it took Nixon a full four-and-a-half years to dismiss his own attorney general for failing to carry out the president’s imperial agenda.  Trump?  He took care of that on Day 11.

There’s a classic saying, “History doesn’t repeat itself—but it rhymes.”  Of course, historians love to draw parallels between the past and the present in any case, but the truth is that some connections are so blindingly obvious that we needn’t even bring experts to the table.  We can do the rhyming ourselves, thank you very much.

At this absurdly premature juncture in the life of the new administration, it has become evident—to the shock of no one—that the Trump White House is destined to most resemble Nixon’s in both form and effect, and there may be no surer means of anticipating this West Wing’s machinations—good and bad, but mostly bad—than through a close study of the one that dissolved, oh-so-ignominiously, on August 9, 1974.

In light of recent events, we might as well begin with the Saturday Night Massacre.

In the fall of 1973, President Nixon was drowning in controversy about his role in the Watergate caper, thanks largely to the efforts of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox.  Suddenly, on October 20, Nixon decided he had had enough and ordered his attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to fire Cox ASAP.  Having promised to respect Cox’s independence, Richardson refused to comply and promptly resigned, as did his deputy shortly thereafter.

Once the dust settled and Cox was finally sacked by Solicitor General Robert Bork (yes, that Robert Bork), it became clear to every man, woman and child in America that the president of the United States was a crook and a scumbag—albeit a cartoonishly sloppy one—and so began the suddenly-inevitable march to impeachment that would end only with Nixon’s resignation in August of the following year.

What’s the lesson in all of this?  For my money, it’s that if the president feels he cannot do his job without depriving America’s chief law enforcement officer of his, something extraordinarily shady is afoot, and it’s only a matter of time before the public—and Congress—demands some manner of accountability.

Cut to the present day, and the constitutional (and humanitarian) crisis that Donald Trump pointlessly unleashed by banning all Syrian refugees from entering the U.S.—along with immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries—and then firing Acting Attorney General Sally Yates when she proclaimed the order illegal and instructed the Justice Department to ignore it.

For all that differentiates the Saturday Night Massacre from the Muslim ban and its aftermath, both events present a commander-in-chief with an utter, self-defeating contempt for basic rule of law and all institutional checks on his authority.  Just as Nixon believed he could sweep Watergate under the rug by canning its lead investigator, so does Trump think he can essentially wipe out an entire religion’s worth of immigrants from the United States by disappearing any Justice Department official who regards the First Amendment as constitutionally binding.

(Notice how Trump justified the firing of Yates by accusing her of “betrayal”—as if the attorney general’s loyalty to the president supersedes her loyalty to the law.)

Of course, the nice thing about the Constitution is that it exists whether or not the president believes in it (as Neil deGrasse Tyson didn’t quite say).  The trouble—as the nation learned so painfully with Nixon—is that justice can take an awfully long time to catch up to the president’s many dogged attempts to dodge it—especially if he has a gang of willing collaborators in Congress.

In the end, the reason Watergate exploded into a full-blown cataclysm was that Richard Nixon was a fundamentally rotten human being—a callous, cynical, friendless sociopath whose every move was calibrated for political gain and without even a passing consideration for the public good.  For all that he spoke about standing up for the common man, when push came to shove the only person he really gave a damn about—the only person he ever lifted a finger to protect—was Richard Nixon.

Does any of this sound familiar?  You bet your sweet bippy it does.  In the frightfully short time he’s been president, Trump has shown a remarkable knack for mimicking every one of Nixon’s faults—his vindictiveness, he contempt for the press, his insecurity, his dishonesty, his propensity for surrounding himself with racists and anti-Semites—while somehow skirting any redeeming qualities that might make his presidency tolerable, despite all of the above.

Indeed, to the extent that Trump is not the absolute spitting image of America’s all-time champion of corruption, he is demonstrably worse.  After all, Nixon was historically literate, intellectually curious and, from his experience as a congressman and vice president, highly knowledgeable about the nuts and bolts of Washington deal making.  He was a scoundrel, but a reasonably competent one with several major accomplishments to his name.

Can we expect Trump to achieve any sort of greatness in the teeth of his many weaknesses?  If these first two weeks are at all predictive of the next four years, I see no reason to think so.  Whereas Nixon was a gifted strategic thinker with a deep sense of history and geopolitics, Trump has over and over again professed a proud and stubborn ignorance of any matter that does not directly involve himself, and seems to derive all his information about a given subject from the last person he spoke to about it.

The Greeks had it right:  Character is destiny, and there’s just no coming back from a veritable avalanche of fatal flaws.  We can pray all we want that the president will suddenly discover the value of temperance, deliberation and any hint of public virtue, but we’d only be denying a truth that has been staring us in the face from the moment Trump announced himself as a figure of national consequence.  He is who he is, he will never get better, and our only hope is that this new national nightmare won’t last quite as long as the last one did.

Against All Enemies

The election of Donald Trump was arguably the worst disaster to befall the United States since September 11, 2001.  But if you ask what will keep me up at night once Trump assumes power, the answer is:  Whatever disaster comes next.

I say “whatever,” but really, I mean terrorism.  If not a large-scale, years-in-the-making cataclysm like 9/11, then perhaps a series of multi-city, mass-casualty suicide bombings like we’ve seen throughout Europe the last several years:  Barbarous, politically-motivated strikes that, individually, are not destructive enough to bring America to its collective knees but, taken together, have the effect of radicalizing ordinary citizens into seeking extraordinary, extralegal measures to ensure such death and disruption doesn’t become (to use the buzzword of the moment) normalized.

You can see it coming from 100 miles away:  Trump conditions his supporters to view all Muslims with suspicion as potential ISIS recruits.  Then one day, their worst fears are realized when actual radical Islamists commit an actual act of terrorism on American soil.  As a consequence, those citizens who for years have been fed a steady diet of revulsion and contempt toward the entire Islamic faith will feel emboldened to act on those worst instincts.

At the street level, this will inevitably take the form of countless assaults and harassment against any and all perceived “foreigners” by brainless white thugs cloaking themselves in the mantle of “patriotism,” cheered on by fellow white thugs waving the flag of white supremacy.

We know this is what would happen following the next terrorist attack because it’s happening right now in the absence of it:  Every other day, we hear about some Muslim-American or other being targeted by deranged white idiots for the sole crime of reading from the wrong bible and praying to the wrong god.  Never mind that virtually every major act of violence in America since 9/11 has been committed by white Christians; never mind that you’re more likely to be killed by a piece of furniture than a terrorist attack; and never mind that, within the United States, organized Islamic jihad isn’t even remotely a thing.

Nope:  We are now firmly entrenched in a post-fact environment, and there’s no amount of data or common sense that will prevent several million of our dumbest countrymen from viewing several million of their fellow citizens as avowed enemies of our very way of life.

It’s an insane, racist, destructive way to think, and the incoming commander-in-chief has been enabling it every step of the way.

Without much doubt, a Trump administration will be lousy for women, lousy for African-Americans, lousy for gays, lousy for Hispanics and lousy for Jews.  But for my money, it is America’s Muslims who are the most vulnerable group of all, because their “otherness” is so completely (and irrationally) tethered to a gang of murderers 5,000 miles away over whose actions they have absolutely no control.

Like German Jews in the 1930s or the young women of Salem, Mass., in 1692, Muslims have become the designated scapegoats for most, if not all, social unrest in the 21st century, and it is entirely up to us—the non-Muslim majority—to ensure they don’t suffer a similar historical fate.

As with all other heretofore-unthinkable scenarios, we have little cause for complacency on this front.  Never forget:  During the campaign—in response to no specific threat—Trump suggested a blanket prohibition on all Muslims entering the United States “until we know what’s going on,” and also insinuated—albeit in his characteristically slippery, incoherent way—that the government should create some sort of “registry” to keep an eye on Muslims already living in the U.S.  You know, just in case.

The point isn’t whether he really meant it.  As anyone with half a brain ought to know by now, Trump doesn’t really mean anything.

The point—chilling and undeniable—is that, in Trump’s mind, absolutely nothing is out of bounds.  To him, there is no limit to what the president can do for the sake of “national security”:  The ends justify the means, even when the ends themselves are unclear.  Having never read a word of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Geneva Conventions or, for that matter, the Old and New Testaments, he believes himself immune to the institutional checks and basic ethical norms that every other democratically-elected official takes for granted and that serve as the societal glue that holds this crazy world together.

Fundamentally, our next president possesses the mind of a dictator, waking up every morning thinking, “If it can be done, why shouldn’t it be?”

Hence the profound unease we should all feel about how he might behave in an emergency—particularly given our country’s abysmal track record in this department.

Remember:  In response to World War II, Franklin Roosevelt systemically violated the Constitutional rights of 120,000 American citizens in the off-chance they were Japanese sleeper agents—and he is considered the greatest president of the 20th century.  Eight decades earlier, Abraham Lincoln reacted to the Civil War by unilaterally suspending habeas corpus—a highly unconstitutional move that was roundly condemned by the Supreme Court, whose judgment the president then promptly ignored.  And Lincoln was the greatest man in the history of everything.

You don’t think Trump’s advisers have studied up on those cases and are prepared to use them as a pretext for rounding up Muslims en masse in the aftermath of the next big national calamity?  More worrying still:  Are we at all confident that, in a 9/11-like situation, Republicans in Congress will summon the courage to defend America’s core principles and prevent Trump from assuming dictatorial powers from now until the end of time?

They won’t if they live in competitive districts and fear being “primaried” in the next election.  They won’t if they expect to be labeled unpatriotic and “soft on terror” if they dare suggest that not all Muslims pose a national security risk.  And they certainly won’t if there is a groundswell of support from America’s basket of deplorables to turn the world’s greatest democracy into a perpetual police state with the sole objective of making white people feel safe.

It’s a central—and oft-repeated—lesson of world history:  Republics cannot be destroyed except from within.  In 1787, our founders designed a system of government—subject to layer upon layer of checks and balances—that could withstand every imaginable challenge to its viability save one:  The failure of all three branches to uphold it.

On January 20, Donald Trump will raise his right hand and swear an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  If his public statements over the last 18 months are any indication, he will probably violate that oath midway through his inaugural address, at which point Congress will need to decide whether it truly values country over party, and whether the principles established in that very Constitution are still worth defending against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

Particularly when one of those enemies is sitting in the Oval Office.

Pleading the 22nd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amend This

One of the more surreal moments of my four years in college was the evening Phyllis Schlafly came to town.

Although Schlafly, who died on Monday, was correctly known as a conservative Republican firebrand, the audience at her speaking engagement that night wasn’t necessarily any less liberal than the university’s student population as a whole.  As someone whose own worldview was at least 80 percent different from hers, I attended the talk out of sheer morbid curiosity, aware of Schlafly’s considerable historical significance as a 1970s right-wing ideologue, and I suspect that a large portion of my fellow attendees were there for the same reason.

Her spiel (I quickly gathered) was essentially the same speech she’d been giving all across the country for the past 30-odd years:  A broadside against feminism, liberalism, homosexuality, abortion, the sexual revolution in general, and any notion that, in matters of love and marriage, men and women should be treated equally.  In her time, Schlafly was often referred to as an “anti-feminist,” and in person she certainly lived up (or down) to that moniker, asserting, among other things, “Feminism is incompatible with happiness.”

Among today’s progressives, of course, hysterical opinions like that are increasingly viewed as relics of an ancient, oppressive regime that has rightly (if slowly) ground itself into dust.  Maybe it was socially acceptable to rail against gender equality and sexual freedom in, say, 1973, but our society has since gotten over itself and embraced legal equality of the sexes as a veritable no-brainer and a core American value.

Or so we would like to think.

Sure, most of the country has moved on from the misogynistic paternalism of the 1950s, but there is still a robust minority (i.e., the Republican Party) that feels differently about the respective roles of men and women, and it remains a force to be reckoned with.

And one reason for that is Phyllis Schlafly.  If her values have ceased to be America’s values, the residual strength of anti-feminism—the very fact that men and women are not treated equally in 2016—is thanks to her leadership on behalf of that powerful, lousy idea.

Above all, Schlafly’s legacy rests on her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment throughout the 1970s.  First introduced in 1923—and on a regular basis thereafter—the ERA would have enshrined in the U.S. Constitution that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”  If that sounds fairly uncontroversial to you, Congress apparently agreed:  In 1971, the House approved the ERA by a score of 354-24, followed by an equally overwhelming vote in the Senate and the blessing of no less than President Nixon to boot.  By then, all it needed was ratification by three-quarters of individual state legislatures and gender equality would’ve become the law of the land.

So what happened?  Well, it never quite got there.  While a bucket load of states ratified the ERA almost instantaneously—and a handful more tagged along in subsequent months—advocates of the amendment never reached the 38-state threshold they needed and the amendment ultimately faded away.  Why?  In short, because Schlafly and company persuaded those few remaining states that total equality of the sexes wasn’t such a hot idea after all, partly by arguing (wait for it…) that a constitutional right to equal protection based on gender would be irreparably harmful to women.

The continuing story of the Equal Rights Amendment is a true American classic, and it’s part of an engaging exhibit at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., called, “Amending America.”  With the Archives being home to original prints of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, this temporary exhibit looks beyond both documents to examine all 27 constitutional amendments that have been ratified to date, plus a sampling of 11,000 proposed amendments that, like the ERA, didn’t make it across the finish line.

You read that right:  American citizens—individuals, organizations and sometimes entire states—have attempted to change the text of America’s most sacred legal document on 11,000 separate occasions over the last 229 years and have failed 99.8 percent of the time.  If you ever wonder why things in America never seem to change all that much, there’s your answer.

The truth is that our founders deliberately made it very, very difficult to alter our Constitution once it was signed, figuring that the supreme law of the land should only be tampered with under extraordinary circumstances and with near-unanimous support from one end of the continent to the other.  In this über-polarized era, it’s no wonder we’ve only done it once in the last 45 years.

In the National Archives exhibit, we are treated to a contextualization of the 27 amendments that succeeded, with various explanations as to why and how certain proposals passed muster with both Congress and the states while so many others didn’t.

The first thing to notice—as this show does—is that more than half of our Constitution’s amendments in some way concern the question of individual rights—the right to free expression, the right to privacy, the right to due process and trial by jury, etc.  Indeed, no fewer than four amendments deal with voting rights alone, removing restrictions based on race, sex, age and ability to pay a poll tax.

Equally noteworthy is that among the amendments that address individual freedoms, only one—the 18th, establishing Prohibition—had the effect of taking away freedoms instead of expanding them.  It can hardly be a coincidence that, a mere 14 years later, the 18th Amendment became the first and only to be unceremoniously axed, following the nation’s collective realization that Prohibition was a terrible idea.

Beyond guaranteeing rights, the object of most successful amendments has been to tweak or clarify the way the government functions—a process whose extreme importance is matched only by its extreme dullness.  For every amendment that has granted mass suffrage or prohibited cruel and unusual punishment, there have also been those that have moved Inauguration Day from March 4 to January 20 or outlined when Congress can (and cannot) give itself a raise.

What’s the common denominator?  Not much, other than a critical mass of concerned citizens looking at a particular national imperfection and thinking, “You know, we really oughta fix that.”

Hence the rather hilarious variety of failed proposals over the years.  Among my favorites spotlighted at the National Archives:

  • A suggestion in the 1930s that instead of banning alcohol, the U.S. simply ban drunkenness, instead.
  • A plea, 100 years earlier, that no one who has engaged in dueling be allowed to run for public office.
  • A more radical plan to abolish the presidency altogether and replace it with a three-person executive council.
  • A similar scheme to divide the vice presidency among three people, ranking them, respectively, as Veep No. 1, Veep No. 2 and Veep No. 3.
  • A proposal—just before the U.S. entered World War I—that every war be put to a popular vote, and that everyone who votes “yes” be automatically enlisted to fight it.

Certainly, not all of the 11,000 duds were that entertaining, creative or outright loony.  Nonetheless, no matter how reasonable and practicable the more serious ones have been, they have failed to win the support of two-thirds of both houses of Congress and/or three-quarters of state legislatures, begging the question of what sort of amendment could possibly succeed in 2016?

Personally, I’d love to see the Second Amendment canned as definitively as the 18th, but I know better than to hold my breath.  Like much of America, I’d appreciate chucking the Electoral College once and for all, granting either statehood or basic representation to Washington, D.C., and getting big money out of politics, but is the status quo on those issues really so dire that we could muster a sufficient groundswell to actually get the job done?

I suspect not, and that points to the unfortunate truth that national consensus on a major subject—no matter how obvious in retrospect—tends only to occur once in a blue moon.  Lest we forget the immortal wisdom—falsely attributed to Winston Churchill—that Americans can always be counted upon to do the right thing after exhausting all the alternatives.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln enlightened us about the backbreaking work required to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, and that was after four years of fighting a damn war over the issue.  For its part, the original Bill of Rights was less an organized coming-together of common interests than an elaborate bargaining chip crafted by James Madison to coax a handful of reticent states into ratifying the Constitution itself.

Indeed, in many ways, this entire country was haphazardly cobbled together in a dizzying confluence of happenstance, compromise and brilliant improvisation, leaving us, in the end, with a series of founding documents that practically beg to be given a second and third look.

And we have indeed done that from time to time, but always while fighting the urge to honor precedent and the founders themselves, as if the ghosts of Washington, Madison and Hamilton will descend from heaven and collectively smite us for going against their divine wishes.

We should tempt the fates more often, for our sake and theirs.  And finally ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment would be a damned good place to start.

When the Truth Is Inconvenient

Note:  The following contains major plot details about HBO’s The Night Of.

“We have more on the kid.”

Those were the words spoken by District Attorney Helen Weiss late into the final episode of The Night Of on HBO.  If that sentence isn’t the single most tragic and infuriating reflection of American injustice in this whole series, it’s certainly the most succinct.

In its proper context, the line isn’t a statement of fact so much as a desperate act of defiance.  Having spent months preparing an airtight case against Nasir Khan for the horrific murder of Andrea Cornish, Weiss is confronted—at the last possible moment—with brand new, compelling and altogether persuasive evidence identifying The Real Killer, thereby exonerating Naz.  (It’s typical of the series that this information comes from Detective Dennis Box, the man who all but single-handedly pinned the murder on Naz in the first place.)

For Weiss—having presented everything to the jury except her closing statement—this revelation is her moment of truth and a test of character, and she knows it.  Discovering, at long last, that she’s probably got the wrong man and her entire case is built on a lie, she has exactly one morally correct option:  Abandon the case and set Naz free.

Indeed, had The Night Of been directed by Frank Capra and taken place in a universe whose moral arc always bends toward justice—think Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, where a corrupt senator finally (and dramatically) sees the error of his ways—that’s exactly what would have happened, thereby bringing the series to a swift and happy conclusion.

However, since The Night Of is, instead, the creation of Richard Price and Steven Zaillian—co-writers of The Wire and Schindler’s List, respectively—Weiss reacts precisely as the most cynical among us would expect:  By disregarding inconvenient truths for the sake of winning her case and preserving her sterling reputation.  By saying, in effect, “I don’t care about the facts; I only care about what I can make a jury believe.”

In short, she fails the test, proving herself capable of willfully denying justice to an innocent defendant—the very thing her vocation (and several amendments to the U.S. Constitution) abhors above all else and, in theory, makes every effort to prevent.

Saying, “We have more on the kid”—i.e., it would be much easier to convince 12 jurors that Naz is the killer than to start this whole thing over again from scratch—she manages to more or less sum up the ethos of her entire profession, thereby exposing a massive, horrifying ethical blind spot that, deep down, all of us pretty much already knew about.  In the end—as a certain presidential candidate is fond of saying—nothing matters more than winning.

The natural counterargument to this lamentation is that, when you get right down to it, there’s really no other way this process could function.  Since every civil and criminal court case in history has involved a dispute over the truth of a situation, we simply accept that at least one side is either lying or mistaken, and that the entire job of a judge or jury is to figure out which side (if any) is telling the truth.  If a prosecutor can present a set of facts that makes the defendant appear guilty—and if the defense team cannot rebut those charges sufficiently—then the prosecutor has done his or her job and has nothing to be ashamed of.

That’s why The Night Of is a tragedy instead of a farce:  The characters themselves might not be corrupt, but they are working within a corrupt system—a system that condones dishonesty so long as you can get away with it and has no fidelity to objective truth except when it happens to help the state’s case.

The tragedy, then, is that the problem of prosecutorial zeal can never be completely solved, just as a problem like runaway capitalism can never be completely solved:  For most people in America, there isn’t anything problematic about it.  It’s simply how the world works, and why bother fixing something that isn’t broken in the first place?

The strength of this series has been to take fundamentally decent people and situate them in a milieu that brings out their worst instincts.

Yes, Naz becomes a gangster and a drug smuggler while in prison.  But how would you behave in his shoes?  If self-preservation is an instinct you possess (to paraphrase Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction), wouldn’t you tailor your actions to whatever might save your life, regardless of what ordinary morality would dictate under normal circumstances?

Similarly, if you happen to be an attorney with a reputation to maintain in a high-profile case, of course you would do everything you could to prevail, because anything less would be humiliating.  District attorney is a job like any other:  You are rewarded for doing well, but not necessarily for doing good.

In the end, The Night Of allows Helen Weiss to have her cake and eat it, too—namely, by dismissing Detective Box’s 11th hour discoveries when there is no use for them, only to reconsider when circumstances provide her with a trap door through which she can save face and save her soul at the same time.

And so the show ended as maddeningly as it began:  By exposing all the unfairness, racism and hypocrisy of the American criminal justice system, while offering only a faint, distant glimmer of hope.  If the final moments of The Night Of were frustrating—having things both ways, lacking any real sense of closure—we can lay the blame squarely on the real-life frustrations this series was critiquing.  To end this show cleanly would’ve been a betrayal and a cop-out—a cheap way of telling us that everything’s gonna be alright when the whole purpose of this project was to remind us that, most of the time, it’s not.