The Popularity Paradox

Woody Allen has always made a point never to read reviews of his own films.  The way he sees it, you cannot accept compliments without also accepting criticism, and since he has no desire to indulge the latter, he has opted to disregard both and just keep chugging along on his own terms, heedless of how the rest of the world might react to the finished product.

While one emulates Woody Allen at one’s peril, his philosophy of not being preoccupied with others’ opinions is a sound one—an idea that perhaps ought to be taken more to heart by the average American, and especially by not-so-average Americans like the one currently living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

As things stand, if there’s one thing we know for sure about Donald Trump, it’s that he only cares about what other people think.  In every facet of his life, our president is essentially a human mood ring whose hue is perfectly synchronized with however his adoring public seems to perceive him at a given moment:  If they’re happy, he’s happy.  He quantifies all Earthly success in terms of ratings, status and wealth, and it has become abundantly clear that assuming the presidency has had absolutely no impact on this profoundly amoral view of the world.

While this dynamic worked beautifully for Trump as a candidate—“My poll numbers are bigger than yours!”—the fact of actually being commander-in-chief has introduced an unattractive complication into Trump’s perceived cult of infallibility:  At this moment, scarcely one-third of the country thinks he’s doing a decent job, and whenever he tries to make good on his core campaign pledges, his efforts are thwarted by either Congress or the courts.

This sure ain’t what Mr. Winning had it mind when he signed up.  Much as how Richard Nixon famously articulated, “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal,” Trump entered this job figuring that he could get away with anything so long as a majority of the public approved it—and that if the public didn’t approve it, he could simply claim the polls are wrong, as he did throughout the latter half of 2016.

In effect, he thought he could be an American Mussolini—ruling by executive fiat and steamrolling Congressional opposition through direct appeals to his base—and many of us had full faith that he would succeed, or at least give it the old college try.

Amidst all this fear that Trump would destroy American democracy as we know it (which he still has ample time to do, of course), we didn’t necessarily give much thought to what might happen were Trump to falter—how he would respond to a sustained period of fecklessness and public ennui, which we seem to have entered following last week’s aborted GOP healthcare bill, to say nothing of the ongoing Russian intrigue that has been piling up since before January 20.

Supposing this stench of failure doesn’t dissipate anytime soon, how does Trump justify his continued existence in government?  In the absence of being liked—nay, in the absence of “winning”—what exactly does Trump stand for in his own mind?  In the teeth of widespread public antipathy to his performance as America’s head of state—and “performance” is definitely the right word—what is the guiding principle that’ll carry him from one conflict to the next?

See, when there was a clear sense of what specific actions would sate the reptile minds of his minions—say, imposing a travel ban on Muslims or building a wall along the Mexican border—Trump could confidently put pen to paper and congratulate himself on a job well done.  Easy peasy.

What he didn’t count on—obvious as it was to everyone else—was that half of his campaign promises were unconstitutional, while the other half were fiscally insane.  Accordingly, short of torching both houses of Congress and crowning himself emperor (perhaps he’s saving that for the second term?), Trump was destined to face serious pushback to his agenda within minutes of “making America great again.”  Now that a major chunk of his policy portfolio is on life support or worse, he may need to decide whether playing to the angry mob was such a hot strategy after all.

Historically, presidents with exceptionally low approval ratings have taken the Woody Allen view—that is, to effect a conspicuous detachment from the passions of the unwashed masses, appealing instead to future historians as the ultimate arbiters of the rightness of their executive decisions.  As we know from such men as Harry Truman and George H.W. Bush, there is some credence to the theory that being unpopular in your own time doesn’t necessarily preclude you from achieving immortality—or at least respectability—a generation or two after the fact.

The catch, however, is that Truman and Bush were men of decency, conviction and patriotism:  Even in their lowest moments, they believed to their boots that they were trying to do the right thing and were prepared to defend their records until the last dog died.  In acting against the will of the majority, they evoked the classical ethos—championed by no less than the Founding Fathers—that the short-term desires of the people must occasionally be overruled in the long-term interest of the public.  In the long sweep of history, leaders who risked their reputations for the greater good of the country have been viewed very favorably, indeed.

Donald Trump is no such person.  Day in and day out, for 70 years running, our current president has only ever concerned himself with, well, himself.  Whether on top of the world or with his back against the wall, he prioritizes Trump first, the Trump family second, and everyone else not at all.  Matt Taibbi was perhaps being cheeky when he mused in Rolling Stone that “Trump would eat a child in a lifeboat,” but the image rings true:  In Trump’s eyes, no human being has value except for what he or she can do for Donald.

Which leads us to arguably the most essential, inescapable fact about Trump as president:  Because he does not view human relations in moral terms—because he is a textbook sociopath with zero capacity for emotional growth—he can never be counted on to do the right thing, unless he does it by accident.  Unlike virtually all past presidents at one point or another, he will never face down his staunchest supporters and say, “I know you won’t approve what I’m about to do, but trust me, it’s for your own good.  Someday, you’ll thank me.”

What will he do over the next four (if not eight) years?  Presumably, what he always does:  When his approval rating is solid, he will sign whatever bill will keep those numbers up (e.g., the Muslim ban).  When his popularity tanks—as it has done pretty much this whole time—he will publicly throw a tantrum while privately using the executive branch as his own personal graft machine.  And when he manages to be both unpopular and ineffectual (e.g., failing to repeal Obamacare), he will do what he does best:  Pretend nothing happened, lose interest and walk away.

That’s what you get when you put an emotionally needy charlatan in charge of the largest economy on Earth:  Instability, immorality, ineptitude and intransigence.  A bumbling, crooked train ride to nowhere.

Dispensable Pop Stars

Two significant cultural events occurred in recent days, with parallels so obvious they were impossible to miss.

First, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann announced she would not seek reelection in 2014.

And second, the media pronounced dead the career of Justin Bieber.

OK, perhaps the connection is not so self-evident, but allow me to explain.

Bachmann, of course, is the Tea Party-styled four-term representative who, in her 2012 presidential campaign, cemented a reputation for making patently false assertions with unwavering conviction, such as when she claimed the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation, because a random woman at a campaign event told her so.

Her most recent House race was also her most competitive, and when she announced her impending retirement from Congress, the man who nearly defeated her in 2012, Jim Graves, declared, “Mission accomplished.”

As he would have it, Graves regarded himself as a mere vessel, on behalf of the good people of Minnesota, to remove Bachmann from the national scene.  While he might have preferred to do so by personally unseating her, achieving the same ends by alternative means—namely, spooking her into fleeing politics the way she tends to flee reporters—was good enough for him.

As for Justin Bieber, who I trust requires no introduction, it is probably a bit soon to proclaim the sun has set upon a pop sensation still in his teens, and what is more, one with such natural charisma and (on good days) a knack for navigating the labyrinthine world of celebrity.

All the same, various pop culture news outlets have done exactly that, weaving together a “meltdown” narrative from a series of unfortunate events in Bieber’s recent past, including such crimes against humanity as smoking marijuana, turning up late for concerts and, most amusingly, having his pet monkey indefinitely detained by the Federal Republic of Germany.

As we come to grips with the prospect of a world with a few square inches not inhabited by Justin Bieber, I am drawn back to the dawn of his young career, which to me and my particular circle of acquaintances signaled precisely one thing:  The effective end of the Jonas Brothers in the cultural bloodstream.

It is easy to forget today, but the tender trio with matching purity rings and, like Bieber, a supposed connection to the music industry was quite the commodity for a good couple of years, with precisely the sort of wall-to-wall coverage in all the usual celebrity rags (and a rabid fan following to boot) currently enjoyed by Bieber.

No more.  In effect (if not by design), Bieber served the same purpose in his pursuit of fame as Jim Graves in his pursuit of political office:  Knocking the reigning “it girl” off the pedestal.

It is often said (accurately enough) that America will build up its celebrities only to destroy them later on.  Fame is ephemeral.  Today’s rock star is tomorrow’s has-been.  Our so-called heroes in the world of entertainment, with precious few exceptions, are ultimately disposable and replaceable.

The useful connection we should draw, then, is that this principle applies as much to politics as to entertainment.

Lest we forget, Bachmann’s primacy in the Tea Party universe was itself a product of the waning influence of the former queen bee of the proverbial far right, Sarah Palin, for whom Bachmann was viewed as something of a surrogate in the 2012 GOP primaries.

This is no small fact, when we reflect the degree to which the world of punditry managed to convince itself and many others that Palin would be a force in American politics for many years to come.  For a good long while—particularly during the early months of the Obama administration—it was inconceivable that Palin would all but vanish from the scene and become irrelevant.

And then she all but vanished from the scene and became irrelevant.

As a nation, America might well be “indispensable,” as President Obama asserted in one of his debates against Mitt Romney.  However, the same is not true about any individual American.

To wit:  We take it on faith that Franklin Roosevelt was the “only” man who could possibly have won World War II.  But then how do we explain how his unknown, untested successor, Harry Truman, managed to patch the world back together again when the war was over?  It could not have been entirely a matter of luck, could it?

Accordingly, we should resist the temptation to anoint political and cultural saviors for ourselves, as if we would be lost without them.  Happily, in point of fact, we would not.

America is a big country, and there are plenty of clever, talented people who live here.  By no means are we all truly created equal, but we are equally human.  We should rejoice at this news, rather than constantly rebel against it.