The New Abnormal

Donald Trump has been president for exactly six months.  By my calculations, that means he has 90 months to go before he’s done.

That’s right:  90 months.  Seven-and-a-half years.  Two presidential terms.

You heard it here first:  Trump is going to be re-elected in 2020, and he’s going to serve until January 20, 2025.  He will not be impeached.  He will not be removed.  He will not die.  And he will not resign.

That’s not a prediction.  That’s a goddamned guarantee.

I haven’t the slightest idea how he’s going to pull this off—Lord knows I didn’t foresee last year’s shenanigans three-and-a-half years in advance—but nor have I any doubt that he could, and almost surely will.  If recent U.S. history teaches us anything, it’s that if you can win a presidential election once, you can win a presidential election twice.  Four of our last five commanders-in-chief have done just that, and there is little reason to expect this trend to abate with the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Trump is going to be an eight-year national problem, and we might as well get used to it now.  Don’t expect him to disappear ahead of schedule, or to go gently into that good night.  He has spent the first 71 years of his life steadfastly refusing to yield his place in the national conversation, never giving anyone a moment’s peace.  Why would years 72 to 78 be any different?

They won’t be.  Trump is not going to change any part of his core identity before he dies, and perhaps the most essential among them is his primal, obsessive need for total victory—as he calls it, “winning.”  Knowing, as he does, that being a one-term president would be an abject humiliation and would brand him an electoral “loser” for all eternity—indeed, doubly so, considering his failure to secure the popular vote the first time around—he is surely prepared to do literally anything to prevent such an eventuality from happening, up to and including breaking every social and political norm that he hasn’t already violated.

Think he’s corrupt and unsavory now?  Just you wait, Henry Higgins.  Just you wait.

Of course, I could be getting carried away, allowing misguided cynicism to obscure certain realities that are staring us squarely in the face.  The obvious rejoinder to my dour political forecast—the one you will hear from every white-knuckled left-wing media source in America—is that the sheer weight of ridiculous scandal already engulfing the Trump administration will ultimately destroy it—if not now, then within a few months, and if not within a few months, then sometime between now and the end of the first term.  Trump forever being his own worst enemy—devoid of scruples, subtlety and any sense of civic responsibility—he will sooner or later cross a red line—legally and/or morally—that the American public will view as the proverbial last straw and will then demand Congress dispose of him once and for all, which its exasperated members will presumably be all-to-happy to do.

Such has become the reigning fantasy of the Trump era:  The assumption that after two-plus years of getting away with slaughtering one sacred cow after another, Trump will eventually say or do something so profoundly beyond the pale that the entire country will drop everything and say, “That does it.  This man can no longer be the president.”  Evidently, nothing he has done so far has risen to that level—including that time he bragged about having committed sexual assault.

In any case, the crux of this hopeful narrative is the basic fact of Trump’s terminally low approval ratings since entering the White House—numbers that seem to remain in the toilet irrespective of how he behaves on any given day.  While much was made of a recent Washington Post-ABC News survey that pegged the president’s support at a historically awful 36 percent, the truth is that his numbers have barely moved since the moment he took the oath of office.  (According to Gallup, Trump’s approval rating has ranged between 36 and 42 percent every day since April 29, and has never once risen above 46.)

How, you ask, could someone who has yet to garner the support of 50 percent of the public—and likely never will—possibly win the next presidential election under any circumstances?  It’s a sensible enough question—or it would be, except for the 16 U.S. presidents who have done exactly that.

That’s right:  More than one in three of America’s commanders-in-chief achieved ultimate power without winning a majority of the popular vote.  Of those 16 men, five (including Trump) lost the national popular vote outright, while the remaining 11 won a plurality of the popular vote but were denied an absolute majority thanks to multiple opponents who split the vote amongst themselves.  Three chief executives—Clinton, Wilson and Cleveland—managed to pull this off twice, so who is to say it will not happen again in 2020?

Having won by losing once already, Trump plainly understands that he doesn’t need broad support on anything to eke out a victory 42 months hence.  Gifted a lousy Democratic opponent and a halfway-viable third party nominee—both of which are entirely within the realm of plausibility—Trump could squeak back into the White House with little more than 40 or 41 percent.  As ever, the only number that truly matters is 270—a majority in the Electoral College—which Trump could hit merely by holding 26 of the 30 states he won last November.

And how will he accomplish that?  By doing what he does best:  Bluffing.

Regardless of his actual domestic record after four years, he will proclaim himself the most successful chief executive in history.  Regardless of the findings of Robert Mueller’s investigation, he will declare himself not guilty on all charges.  Regardless of whatever happens in North Korea, the Middle East and God knows where else, he will boast of having defeated ISIS, staunched illegal immigration and Made America Great Again.

All such behavior will be perfectly predictable, stemming, as it does, from Trump’s nature as a delusional narcissist who is somehow also a world-class con artist.  As Sarah Ellison writes in this month’s Vanity Fair, “[Trump] is a pathogen, doing what pathogens do, and as surprised as anyone to have found himself replicating in the nation’s bloodstream.”

The question, then, is how many marks Trump’s act will attract this time around, and whether enough of them will turn out to the polls on November 3, 2020.

It is my view that enough of them will, and that this miserable circus will go on for precisely 2,922 days longer than most people expected on November 7, 2016.  Despite the incompetence and despite the fraud, Trump will remain leader of the free world for eight full years.

Why?  Because, fundamentally, Americans are leery of abandoning a known quantity who wields supreme power.  We like stability and familiarity in our leaders, and while Trump does not exactly embody the former, he has long mastered the art of distracting America from one controversy by bungling into a new one, thereby resetting the 24-hour media game clock and nudging the goalposts of moral outrage ever-farther down the field.

For all the warnings on the left to never accept Trump and his methods as “the new normal,” it is human nature to adapt to a changing environment over time.  Like the famous frog who adjusts to a gradually-warming pot of water, the American public has learned to assimilate the president’s singularly bizarre and dangerous behavior as an organic feature of the current political landscape.  His unpredictability has itself become predictable, and millions of our fellow citizens take real, if perverse, comfort from not knowing what the hell he’s going to do next.

George Carlin once said, “When you’re born in this world, you are given a ticket to the freak show.  When you’re born in America, you are given a front row seat.”  It was in that same spirit that, in June 2015—as the campaign was just beginning—The Onion ran a story, faux-written by Trump himself, titled, “Admit It:  You People Want To See How Far This Goes, Don’t You?”

Well:  don’t we?

In Vino Veritas?

One would not expect a man who was filmed saying “I love Hitler” to earn a Jew’s pity and (dare I say) affection.  But that John Galliano is one charming guy.

Galliano, you might recall, is the influential fashion guru who ruled over Christian Dior until his career came to a spectacular, crashing end in February 2011, when a cell phone video revealed him hurling anti-Semitic and other insults at fellow patrons in a Parisian bar.  Galliano has been lying low as a social pariah and persona non grata ever since.

Until now.  Galliano’s first post-exile interview appears in this month’s issue of Vanity Fair, and he also spoke in recent weeks with PBS’s Charlie Rose.  Galliano used both platforms as a means of explaining himself and making amends, and he proves a highly compelling subject.

The fascination with the former king of couture springs from the fact that the abjectly hateful comments in question—informing Jewish customers, “your mothers, your forefathers would all be fucking gassed,” among other things—genuinely seemed to come out of nowhere.

If all one knew of him was the footage of his fateful night in Paris, one would simply render him a British Mel Gibson minus the subtlety:  A boorish, arrogant, bigoted little puke who enjoys the fine art of imbibing just a little too much.

In point of fact, alcohol was indeed a main character in the story of Galliano’s fall—far more so than in Gibson’s, and in a far more intriguing way.

In the case of Mr. Braveheart, who in 2006 famously ranted about “the Jews” while being arrested for driving while intoxicated, alcohol’s magical powers of removing one’s inhibitions led him to express views that the world already knew (or suspected) he possessed.  Gibson might not have uttered such anti-Semitic slurs in a state of sobriety, but such slurs uttered under the influence nonetheless reflected what he truly thinks about God’s chosen tribe.

Galliano, by contrast, has never been known to harbor anti-Semitic sentiments in his life, either in word or in deed.  His outburst came amidst an extended period of alcoholism so pronounced that he has no memory of it ever occurring.  At the time, he was operating as a (fairly high-functioning) blackout drunk, not fully cognizant of the thoughts that were forming in his head and spilling out of his mouth.

To the extent that Galliano’s comments reflected views heretofore stowed safely in his subconscious, they were buried so profoundly deep as to call into question whether they can fairly be categorized as his.

The relevant adage we must address, as Vanity Fair does, is in vino veritas—the notion that alcohol is a truth serum and the key to our real selves.  That the things we say in sobriety are tailored to political correctness and social mores, while our drunken musings are the genuine article.

A great deal depends upon the veracity of this maxim, and yet the science on the matter remains highly unsettled.  As we drinkers all know from experience, liquor certainly can induce one to speak truths otherwise left unsaid.  However, it can equally provoke meditations and wisequacks whose origins we cannot quite place, even within our own heads, the effect of which can be quite unnerving, indeed.

Are we prepared to indict ourselves for every impolitic remark that has ever passed our lips at 3 o’clock in the morning after a few dozen glasses of scotch?  Should we treat what we say while drunk as if it were said while sober?  If we are willing to declare—as much of the culture was—that what John Galliano said in a blackout state warranted the end of his career and two years of public exile, are we equally willing to levy the same for ourselves?

None of this is to relieve Galliano—or anyone else—of responsibility for irresponsible drinking.  However culpable one’s peers might be for acting as enablers and eggers-on—particularly of someone rich and famous, who is that much more prone to spiral out of control with little advance warning—we are all free agents, and must try our level best to extricate ourselves from habits that are harmful to us and to others.

Yet I nonetheless wonder if our culture’s policy of having “zero tolerance” for those who say and do repulsive things, without examining the particular context of those words and acts, is not itself harmful to our society, which is supposedly rooted in a Judeo-Christian tradition that prizes forgiveness, understanding and mercy as the highest of earthly virtues.

Happiness and Hogs

“I was in the Virgin Islands once.  I met a girl.  We ate lobster.  Drank piña coladas.  At sunset we made love like sea otters.  That was a pretty good day.  Why couldn’t I get that day?  Over.  And over.  And over.”

So laments Phil, the weatherman played by Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.  The movie turns 20 this year and seems to get better with every viewing.

Besides the broad secular cult following Groundhog Day has acquired since its release, it has additionally been proclaimed the “most spiritual movie of all time” by some members of the clergy.

The story, as you possibly know, involves Phil getting stuck in a time warp whereby he experiences the same day, February 2, ad infinitum—or at least until he learns to spend it wisely.

Theories abound as to what Groundhog Day is truly “about.”  Self-improvement, perhaps.  Redemption.  Being a Good Samaritan.  Doing the Lord’s work.

In the context of the quotation with which I began, allow me to position the movie as a simple meditation on happiness.

Like the film as a whole, Phil’s Virgin Islands anecdote contains depths of meaning that are not necessarily apparent at first (or second, or tenth) blush.

Consider:  Were you stuck in his position—re-living a single day an infinite number of times—but also had the power to select the time and place, which one would you choose?

That is to say, what was the best day you have ever had?  What made it so?  Have you ever experienced a time that would be worth redoing forever?  Is it possible ever to be that happy?

Every issue of Vanity Fair ends with the so-called Proust Questionnaire.  Administered to some famous person or other, its queries are meant to derive a bit of insight into the respondent’s personality.

One of the questionnaire’s inquiries is, in fact, “When and where were you happiest?”  An additional probe, related but by no means identical, asks, “What is your idea of perfect happiness?”

As far as personal survey questions go, these and the rest require a bit more introspection than, say, “What is your favorite color?”

I say the two happiness questions are not equivalent.  Logically, perhaps, they should be.  After all, would not your idea of “perfect happiness” derive from a past experience of being perfectly happy?  Or can “perfection” of any kind only be conceived in the abstract?

One can devote a lifetime to the study of happiness and the pursuit thereof.  As a foundational subject in the story of America (see: Independence, Declaration of), it is a mystery well worth one’s effort to solve.

In a panel discussion on the subject on Charlie Rose some years back, P.J. O’Rourke entertained the possibility that true happiness cannot be appreciated in the present—it becomes apparent only in retrospect.

To O’Rourke, such a theory helped to explain why so many members of the Greatest Generation came to view the years of World War II—an epoch of untold death, suffering and sacrifice—as the happiest of their lives.  For all its horrors, the war provided a sense of purpose and vitality that peacetime, for all its pleasantries, often lacks.

Happiness is not necessarily the same as pleasure.

Notably, the most recent taker of the Proust Questionnaire was Ed Koch, the newly departed former mayor of New York City.  On his view of “perfect happiness,” Koch offered, “Sitting in a living room with my sister, Pat Thaler, and her seven grandchildren and just talking with them.”  However, on the “when and where” question, Koch answered, “At City Hall, conducting the affairs of the city and providing services to more than seven million New Yorkers.”

It is intriguing—is it not?—how the mayor split the difference between work and leisure in assessing what made him happiest.

I suspect most Americans feel the same—that is, the ones lucky enough, in Christopher Hitchens’ words, “to have a life instead of a career.”  Those who get satisfaction simply through being useful to society by putting in a hard day’s work.  Those who would second the historian and biographer David McCullough, who said for himself, “I have never associated ease with happiness.  I am happier when I’m working than doing anything else.”

Ultimately, the definition of happiness is a personal one.  Like the definition of God, it cannot be scientifically challenged or categorized.  It is, rather, something to be contemplated by individuals on their own terms.  As with the search for any great Truth, one might never arrive at an answer.  The pursuit just goes on and on and on.