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?

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Popularity Fallacy

Jeez, can we knock it off about Bill Clinton’s amazing popularity, already?

You see the talk everywhere these days, including most recently in a column by Maureen Dowd in Sunday’s New York Times.

“As Hillary stumbles and President Obama slumps,” Dowd writes, “Bill Clinton keeps getting more popular.”  As evidence, Dowd cites a Wall Street Journal poll from June ranking the “most admired” presidents of the last 25 years (Clinton won by a mile); a YouGov survey measuring the perceived “intelligence” of the last eight commanders-in-chief (again, Clinton finished first); and a May Washington Post poll putting Clinton’s overall “favorable” rating at a 21-year high.

Indeed, strictly to the question, “Do most people today like Bill Clinton?” the answer is an indisputable “Yes,” and it hardly depends on the meaning of the word “like.”

However, I would argue the question itself is a silly and fairly useless one, as it is with regards to every living (or recently dead) ex-president.

Of course Bill Clinton is more popular today than he was, say, during the “Gingrich revolution” in 1994 or the Lewinsky fiasco in 1998.  Of course he enjoys more general goodwill than President Obama or possibly-future-President Hillary Clinton.

Bill Clinton left the White House on January 20, 2001.  Know what he’s been doing in the 13-and-a-half years since?

Not being president, that’s what.

George W. Bush, for his part, ended his presidency with an approval rating of 34 percent.  Today, that number is 53 percent.  What has Bush been doing these past five years to merit such a rise in stature?

Not being president and painting.

Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, also clocked approval numbers in the mid-30s during his final months on the job.  Today, he is nearly as admired as Clinton.  What’s he been up to?

Jumping out of airplanes, fishing, and (all together now) not being president.

Of course, I am being a tad unfair and simplistic.  America’s modern-day ex-presidents have, to varying degrees, done a great deal of good work after leaving office, for which they deserve kudos and a second look.  (Jimmy Carter has probably accomplished more in “retirement” than half our presidents did while in power.)

What is more, my “not being president” theory doesn’t even begin to address the large variance in overall perception among the many former presidents under examination (e.g.  Clinton ranks considerably higher than Carter), and the myriad possible explanations for it.

But the fact remains that nearly every president in modern history has become more admired in retirement than he often (or ever) was while in office.  To this extent, I think my reductionist hypothesis holds, and I’m sticking to it.

Consider:  To assume the presidency is to become the servant of each and every citizen of these United States, and to be personally responsible for their well-being (as far as they’re concerned, at least) and that of the country as a whole.  To be president is to be constantly photographed and broadcast, to be forever seen, heard and discussed, and to be drenched in a bottomless well of gripes and crises from every corner of the known universe.

However, the moment your term expires, all of that goes away.  To become an ex-president is to be freed not only from the duties and burdens of the office, but also from any expectations of leadership.  You can disappear into the woods, and no one will go looking for you.  You can play golf and eat junk food and no one will give you a second thought.  Constitutionally-speaking, a former president doesn’t have to do a damn thing for the rest of his life, and many have been quite happy to oblige themselves.

Long story short (too late?), we Americans approve of our former chief executives because we have no immediate or compelling reason not to.  Because they no longer wield supreme influence over our daily lives.  Because they are no longer on every TV screen every hour of every day.  Because they have transitioned from celebrities with power to mere celebrities.  Because their every move and every word are no longer of any relevance to our own existence, and maybe—at least in some cases—because we have forgotten the days when they did.

Today, Bill Clinton’s long-windedness and snark are adorable.  Would we feel the same way if he were employing them back in the Oval Office on the public dime?

George W. Bush has garnered near-universal praise for his marked disinterest in the nuances of foreign policy in his time away from Washington, even though this same quality yielded a decidedly different response when he was squarely in the middle of the action.

Time may not heal all wounds, but it can certainly numb them and render them moot.  As Paul McCartney said, reflecting on his years with the Beatles, “You always forget the bad bits.”

As we now consider the supposed “inevitability” of Clinton’s leading lady in her possible campaign for president, let us bear in mind that Hillary Clinton’s own popularity—not as high as her husband’s, but certainly an improvement over President Obama’s—is largely the product of her nearly six-year absence from the rough-and-tumble world of retail politics.  Once and if she returns to the arena, are the Democratic primary voters who so loathed her in 2008 going to be able to forgive and forget this time around?  Or is the thawing of their icy hatred contingent on her present status as an above-the-fray figure?

I think it is all-too-obvious that our views of one famous person or other are shaped by that person’s role in our own lives, and that the more benign and unobtrusive such a person is, the more popular he or she tends to be.

So stop talking about Bill Clinton’s enduring popularity as if it’s some sort of anomaly or in any way newsworthy.  It’s not and it’s not.  Rather, it is exactly what you would expect, particularly for a guy who wants nothing more than to be liked and who will go to extraordinary lengths to make it so.

A world leader being relieved of his power and becoming less admired as a result?  Now that would be news.

Congressional Dissonance

The most recent public opinion poll has the U.S. Congress’s approval rating at 7 percent.

A separate poll, taken last week amidst the government shutdown, found 60 percent of respondents affirming that every last member of Congress should be fired, including their own.

Beating up on the ineffectiveness of America’s national legislature is such a cliché—along with the painfully unfunny series of jokes about “things that are more popular than Congress”—that I hesitate to bring it up in any context whatever.

Nonetheless, there is one angle from which the problem of the House and Senate’s perennial unpopularity needs to be considered and understood, and it comes in the form of yet another statistic:  90 percent.

That is the proportion of sitting members of the House who were re-elected in 2012.  The number was 85 percent in 2010 and 94 percent in 2008.  In point of fact, the last time the incumbency rate dropped below 80 percent was 1948.

In 2014, will a sizeable chunk of the Congress’s residing class be thrown out on their unholy patoots?

Don’t.  Make.  Me.  Laugh.

If there is any cliché even more putrid than the notion that Congress is rotten to the core, it is the practice by John Q. Public to ensure that as many members as possible are safely returned to their seats every two years.

The alchemy that allows this to happen is probably too complex to tackle all at once, although a great deal of blame has lately been placed on the phenomenon known as the “gerrymander.”  That’s the practice of carving the boundaries of congressional districts so they are disproportionately Democratic or Republican, thereby guaranteeing that the district’s sitting representative will be re-elected for the rest of his or her natural life.

This explanation is valid as far as it goes, but is somehow not quite good enough.

If we are to understand the dramatic disconnect between our contempt for Congress and our penchant for re-electing it, we must plunge deeper than mere political shenaniganery.

Politics is personal.  We elect the people we elect because, in one way or another, we like them.  Whether it’s because we agree with their philosophies about healthcare or immigration, or simply because they seem like folks with whom we could do shots during happy hour, we apply a test of basic decency and identification to everyone to whom we give our vote.

Expressing disapproval and even hatred for the entire U.S. Congress is easy, because it comes across as one giant blob of uselessness—a conglomerate of mostly anonymous individuals whom, with one exception, you played no role in selecting.  Who do these goobers think they are, and why are they spending my hard-earned money on things I don’t care about?

But when your own congressperson returns home with a suitcase full of cash for that shiny new bridge you’ve been asking for?  Now we’re talking.

Even apart from the pork, we picture our hometown representatives as human beings in a manner that is simply not feasible when applied to the House as a whole.  Try as you might, you cannot empathize with 435 lawmakers as you can with one.

There is a reason so many public officials still go out in the streets to shake hands and talk one-on-one with their constituents:  For all that the Internet has done to streamline the act of communicating, there is still nothing that quite equals the personal connection of good old-fashioned eye contact.

To wit:  Thomas Menino, the outgoing mayor of Boston, has enjoyed stratospheric approval ratings for much of his tenure—at last count, it was at 82 percent.  In a 2009 Boston Globe survey, 57 percent of Bostonians said they had met Menino personally.  Do you suppose these two facts are related?

It is my suspicion—long story short—that eliminating gerrymandering will not eliminate the problem of retaining people the public presumes to detest, because even if overt partisanship were brought into proper proportion, the fact of wanting to take care of your own would remain.

Historically, people tend to vote for their congresspersons based on local concerns, saving their national gripes for senators and presidents.  That, in part, is the point of having a bicameral legislature, with one house more vulgar than the other.

There is an inherent tension here, and it will probably never go away.  We will continue to bitch about the House’s collective intransigence, and we will continue to enable it by sending its members back to Washington.

That is, unless we don’t.

The ball is in our court.  If we don’t follow through, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.