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.

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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.