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My Weekend With Bernie… And the Donald
How a fight with my wife between two vacation destinations explains the appeal of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
My wife and I are planning our first proper vacation in more than three years. The gap between trips is not by choice; it’s just one of those things that happens when you’re busy and you let life go along like everything is fine, then one morning you wake up to this nagging feeling—the gnat-like annoyance of business-as-usual and the unbearable monotony of each day and week melting into the next with no discernable difference between them. You are overcome by the urge to reboot and recharge.
Unfortunately, when this epiphany finally occurs my wife and I usually have only a few days to get our act together, and our vacation plans inevitably default to an old stand-by: the Mayan Riviera, between Cancun and Playa del Carmen, where we got married.
But this year, this time, was going to be different. We weren’t just going to procrastinate until the last minute and take the flight path of least resistance down to the Yucatan peninsula. We were both wrapping up big work projects at around the same time—she was piloting a re-org project at her company, I have two books that I worked on coming out—and we finally had some time to really weigh our options and plan our great escape.
We started by making a list of the three or four places we’ve always wanted to see and then ranking them against one another. We only had two governing rules: 1) they had to be different (so no Paris or London) and 2) they couldn’t be too difficult to travel to (so no Antarctica or North Korea).
Cuba topped my list: “Honey, Cuba is perfect. They speak a language I’m generally conversant in so we’ll be able to get around pretty well. It’s close enough to where we live and where we usually go for vacation that we can get out easily if something happens. Plus they all drive around in cool old American cars and they’re obsessed with baseball! It’s quirky, old-timey and cool.”
My wife was unmoved: “And socialist.”
“Really just in name only, though.”
“No, not in name only. They’re actual socialists.”
“I guess, but we’re opening embassies in each other’s countries. What do you think is going to happen, we go to a resort and they confiscate our wealth?”
“I don’t know, but I don’t want to find out.” My wife is a little more conservative about these things than I am.
“Okay fine, then what’s at the top of your list?”
Her idea: Greece.
I confess that this suggestion was met, not with silence, but instead with a loud, involuntary guffaw.
“Greece is in total disarray. They’re the laughingstock of Europe. Even the Italians are like, ‘geez guys, show a little discipline for once in your lives.’ They’re about to get kicked out of the EU!”
My wife was undeterred: “Greece isn’t going anywhere.”
Besides down the toilet, Greece has become an international joke. They possess a breathtaking inability to self-regulate. For decades the entire nation has hurtled itself toward the precipice of expulsion from the international order. And for what, an Olympics and 20,000 swimming pools?
I made each of these points in turn. They were apparently inconsequential to Greece’s suitability as a vacation destination. “The islands are stunningly gorgeous—Santorini, Mykonos, Crete, Corfu. Greece has been at the center of western civilization for millennia. You love history. Just think about all those amazing relics in Athens: the Parthenon on the Acropolis, the Agora, the Temple of Hephaestus, the—“
“—filth and crime that has been allowed to take root by a bunch of tax-evading, ethically flexible garbage people.”
“That’s not nice.”
“Athens is a hellhole!” This is not my opinion, mind you. I’ve never been. This was the conclusion drawn from first-hand reporting by some of our Greek friends who travel back to the Motherland every year. So obviously, it is unassailable.
It became clear very quickly that we were not going to convince each other of our top vacation spots. Instead of fighting, we went down the rest of our lists searching for compromise (it only took six years of marriage to figure this part out). The objections we had to the remainder of each other’s choices were less immediately violent and complete, but they were enough to knock a lot of the luster off places we already weren’t that excited about after having our top choices shredded and scattered to the wind.
Slowly we began to realize what we were really doing: by process of elimination, we were talking ourselves back into our old stand-by: the comfortable, familiar, unthreatening Mayan Riviera. I couldn’t believe it. We began this whole process determined to avoid the same old story and find some place new. Yet here we were, asking ourselves: “Are we really going to do this again?”
Watching the first GOP debates this past Thursday night, then flipping back and forth between the cable news spin zones as they spun the spin coming out of the spin zone backstage at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, it dawned on me that my wife and I are locked in the same struggle that the American electorate is having with itself over this cycle’s crop of candidates—from both sides of the aisle.
Are there honestly people out there excited about pulling the trigger for Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush? I don’t think so. We know those comfortable, familiar names will always be there come Election Day. Of that we can be sure. Dynasties don’t develop by disappearing from our consciousness.
But with fifteen month to go, and plenty of time to weigh our options between now and then, we luxuriate in this consequence-free period and indulge our romantic desire for someone new, someone willing to speak the uncomfortable truths, someone with fresh ideas and less baggage—or at least less familiar baggage. They’re all just so new and exciting and full of possibility.
And thus, onto the scene and up the polls have stormed Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump—the Cuba and Greece of candidates, respectively.
The independent junior senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, looks like Doc Brown from Back to the Future if he was both a rabbi and a muppet. He’s been around for decades, operating and instigating at the periphery of American politics, but until this year his voice has failed to break through the national noise. Instead, he has been more like your Crazy Uncle Bernie—the cool relative you see only at holidays who stirs up trouble talking his Leftist politics at the dinner table in between daredevil stories about living through the ‘60s and eating stale pot brownies with Grateful Dead roadies in a van somewhere outside Des Moines.
The thing about Crazy Uncle Bernie is that what makes him so alluring as a character is that much of what he says makes sense and appeals to your sense of equity and fairness. Supporters and most moderate commentators will tell you that he has reasonable positions on guns, healthcare, campaign finance reform, and privacy. He has long held positions that the more politically opportunistic and less morally courageous among his colleagues are just now coming around to.
All of this is to say there is something very intriguing and romantic about Bernie Sanders. If you stop the analysis there, Bernieland, like Cuba, seems like it could actually be a nice place for an extended vacation. But then someone reminds you of stuff like earlier this year, when he strongly, publicly recommended that President Obama unilaterally close some tax loopholes (effectively raising taxes) through executive action, and you start to ask yourself: “He really is a socialist, isn’t he?” Or you do your own bit of Google sleuthing, learn that he was born two months before Pearl Harbor, and then do the math: “Holy crap, he’ll be 75 when he takes the Oath of Office if he wins.”
Sure, these are only two tiles in the brilliant mosaic that makes up Bernie Sanders, the independently progressive politician. But, as the argument goes, they are tiles from the outline of Bernie Sanders the man; defining its shape and structure and what can fit within its borders. If he’ll willingly do something like levy unilateral tax reform, what else might he do as President? Give him enough of a mandate, and if he manages to survive a re-election campaign, he might actually remodel the Oval Office and turn it into a circle, just so everything is equal distance from the center. If there is anything more un-American than that, I haven’t seen it.
Then there is Donald Trump—a man who seems like he’s managed to turn five minutes of fame into five decades of infamy. At some level, you have to be impressed by his longevity. He has been a regular call-in guest on the Howard Stern Show for years. He has a big black jumbo jet that he parks conspicuously on the tarmac at LaGuardia so all the business travelers who fly in and out of New York through that airport every day are sure to see it.
He has owned the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants since 1996—personally holding its winners accountable to the exacting standards that he himself has set for the organizations. And, until he unceremoniously took a dump on 1/3rd of North America, he had been in a highly lucrative business relationship with NBCUniversal for more than a decade.
There is no denying that, for a large portion of the American population, there is something magnetic about Donald Trump. By virtue of the number of zeros in his net worth (9), and the number of fucks he gives about what anybody thinks (0)—as evidenced by his responses to Megyn Kelly and half his debate competitors on Thursday—Trump has crafted this unusual persona that allows him to get away with being generally repugnant because he is saying offensive things that many people deeply believe but will only say to themselves in private. He is exciting, no-holds barred, unapologetic.
Who isn’t at least a little curious about what spending some time in that kind of environment might be like? Shedding the pretense and the bullshit niceties and just kind of doing and being what you want to do and be? It’s an intoxicating idea.
Then you remember: oh yeah, Donald Trump is a total garbage person.
For decades he has been making big, swinging-dick bets on his own power and genius, using equal parts swagger and debt. Whether it’s office buildings and mixed-use towers in cities like New York and Chicago, or casinos and resorts in places like Atlantic City and Honolulu, Trump has buried mountains of other people’s money into the foundation pilings of eponymously-titled real estate all over the map—money that is easy to point to, but hard to get out.
He has the unique privilege of being one of the few private citizens in modern history to amass a personal fortune in the billions while also driving four of his companies into bankruptcy. An achievement usually reserved for dictators, whose countries are the ones going insolvent.
In a sense, Donald Trump is very much the Greece of the field: an antiquated cultural icon full of bluster and self-importance, ringed by a bunch of beautiful, sparkly oases of luxury that serve primarily to feed delusions of grandeur and distract from the rotting sore festering at the core. If that sounds overly harsh—about Greece, I mean—consider this chart from an article on The Independent website a few weeks ago about a survey done by the Pew Research Center that asked Europeans their view on the character of some of the continent’s constituent nations. Nearly every country surveyed saw Germans as the most hardworking and trustworthy people in Europe. That is, except for Greece, which viewed Greeks and the most hardworking and trustworthy.
As with Sanders on the Democratic side, throwing your lot in with Donald Trump this far out from Election Day is a consequence-free choice. It’s fun to think about a State of the Union address given by the physical embodiment of Krusty the Clown. It’s invigorating to think about a President occupying the White House who calls in the heads of state from nations who have been a pain in our ass for years and fires them. It’s very easy to give yourself over to the romance and hysteria of the knight in shining armor riding to victory on his or her un-self-consciously dark horse.
To see this phenomenon in action, just look at the Iowa Straw Poll. Generally considered the first real electoral event of the campaign season for the Republican Party, the late-summer gathering could not be less consequential if the winner were crowned in a single-elimination dodgeball tournament using t-shirt cannons and frozen ears of corn. Since first being held in 1979, only once has the eventual Republican nominee won the straw poll outright (George W. Bush in 1999).
Do you know who won last cycle? Michele Bachmann. Think about that for a minute. Ron Paul came in second. Mitt Romney, the eventual nominee, finished seventh! Tim Pawlenty finished third with four times as many votes as Romney and he basically got bullied into running by the press. The impotency of the Iowa Straw Poll is due in no small part to the fact that it takes place six months before the Iowa caucuses and fifteen months before the general election. It’s equal parts wish fulfillment and derring-do, but without any of the daring or the doing because the votes carry zero weight (or consequences). Recognizing this, the GOP announced wisely last month that the straw poll would no longer be held.
Maybe that’s what my wife and I need to do. Maybe we should cancel all this advanced planning, all this information-light but emotion-heavy advocacy for vacation spots we still know very little about. A lot can happen between now and the fall.
Maybe someone whose opinion we trust will hip us to a spot we hadn’t considered. Maybe the world blows up as the summer enflames simmering tensions all over the globe. Maybe a spot that used to be popular and then fell out of vogue for awhile does interesting internal improvements to appeal to undecided vacationers (this is the John Kasich option).
Who knows? The uncertainty of it all only tugs lightly at the conscience right now, but the closer we get to booking flights and hotels the more the gravity of being wrong weighs us down. Nothing is going to happen, probably. But if it does…
After watching both debates, and the spin from backstage, and the spin of the spin on cable news shows, and then the Friday morning debate post-mortems, my wife and I settled on the general unelectability and frightening unsuitability of virtually everyone in the presidential field. Not ten minutes later my father-in-law called to commiserate and relitigate all the conclusions drawn from the previous 18 hours. A steadfast believer in the notion of ‘too much of a good thing’, I quickly changed the subject and asked him where he thought we should go on vacation this fall.
His answer, without missing a beat: the Mayan Riviera. For all the reasons I’ve already described. It’s familiar, easy, comfortable, you know what you’re going to get. And I agreed. With all the uncertainties that normal life likes to throw at you, having a port in the storm like that is very reassuring—in the most depressing way possible.