Lots of Americans are sinking into despair, as the seemingly inescapable fact of a Trump presidency sets in. But perhaps a reality show president, especially one who will literally be executive producing a reality show while he’s in office, will finally help us wake ourselves up.
That’s not to say that Trump’s election is anything but hideous—or to take the absurd Susan Sarandon position that a Trump victory would bring on some mythic “revolution” that a rich celebrity could easily survive while the vulnerable suffer intolerable cruelties. It is instead to say that Trump, with the heavy asterisks hovering over his Putin, FBI and 3-million vote deficit-tainted election, could finally put an end to our collective reverence for the presidency. That’s an outcome the country’s anti-monarchal founders might heartily endorse, and it’s the first step to fighting back. Come Jan. 20, many Americans will revere the presidency no more.
It’s a spell worth breaking. Reverence for the office has made Americans too compliant, too soft, too comfortable, and too ripe for autocracy.
Too great a love for the presidency has caused Democrats to neglect state and local politics and to overly prize compromise and a futile quest for bipartisanship. It has made liberals too allergic to federalism and too shy about grassroots politics. And during the Obama years, pining for the White House seemed to make Republicans insane; wild with conspiracy theories and thirsty for a strongman.
We Americans think quite highly of ourselves, and nothing makes us think more of ourselves than our romantic view of our presidents. I’ve written before that the president is our national avatar—a stand-in for what we believe we are, or want to be.
Our self-perception has always been a myth. After all, our founders were not overly moral men—most of them owned human beings, and they wrote slavery into the Constitution to protect their own agricultural interests. And we’ve had presidents—from Andrew Jackson to Woodrow Wilson to Richard Nixon—who have been racists and reprobates. But in general, our presidents have tried to give us at least something to admire.
Barack Obama, in that view, is who we wanted to be in this new century, when many Americans desired to become this fictional thing called “post-racial.” He fit the bill perfectly; both black and white, with none of the psychic burdens of a family lineage of enslavement; urbane and intellectual; a family man and a high achieving striver who put flesh on our mythologies about the boundless possibilities of the children of immigrants, no matter their color. But Obama’s election convinced a large swath of the country of an opposite idea: that we were literally on the road to Hell; trading in America’s white, Christian identity for a persona that’s darkly European, multiculturalist, morally flexible and far too soft on Islam, which many Americans fear.
That part of America rewarded its Republican representatives handsomely at the ballot box over the last six years—especially in midterms—for battling Obama at every turn. When they rebelled against the GOP, it wasn’t for fighting Obama; it was for losing to him. Many of these voters admire Vladimir Putin for being everything Obama is not: a bold enthnonationalist unafraid to use military muscle to fight Islam and stop the spread of its belief system and believers to the European continent. Many on the American right see the Russian strongman as the only world leader standing up to “the gays” and standing up for white Christians. They literally don’t care if he enriches himself and a handful of fellow oligarchs in the process, kills a few unhelpful journalists, or even uses cyber warfare to help pick our president—as long as it’s a president they like.
In Donald Trump, these voters demanded, and have gotten, a Putin of their own, albeit a lesser one.
Unlike the weirdly body conscious former KGB agent running Russia, Trump is obese—he’ll be our heaviest president since William Howard Taft. He’s crass, poorly spoken and juvenile. He loves conspiracy theories, and is obsessed with what people are saying about him, like a teenage girl fixated on taking the perfect selfie for her Instagram and fuming that the cheerleaders are talking trash about her. And he’s desperately trying to hang on to his 1980s hair.
He has been called a “poor person’s vision of a rich person.” His tastes are garish; the gold on the gaudy fixtures in Trump Tower are painted on, and the food, apparently, is terrible. He trades in his wives for younger models once they do things that gross him out, like giving birth. He’s self-aggrandizing and gross, measuring his worth in claimed but unproven billions and ready access to naked pageant women and girls. He hangs around beaters and cheaters and conspiracy cranks. And he loves rich people—especially big time oilmen and old guys who traffic in scantily clad blondes and robots—while he derides poor people as losers. As president-elect, he is surrounding himself with self-aggrandizing mediocrity.
To paraphrase D.L. Hughley: If Obama is who we wanted to be, Trump may be closer to who we are.
Most Americans see Trump for exactly what he is. In the latest Pew Research poll, by 71 percent to 29 percent, Americans say Trump is not a role model. By 64-31 percent they say he is not moral. By 61-37 percent they say he is not even well qualified to be president—something he proves almost daily, with every tweet, every poorly formed sentence, every bizarre cabinet pick and every refused intelligence briefing. By 62 percent to 35 percent Americans say he has poor judgment. And by 65-33 percent they deem him reckless. He will enter office as the most unpopular president in modern polling history, and the only one with an upside down approval rating.
The problem is that many of our fellow citizens don’t really care. They’ve fully embraced the reality-show age, where you’d rather watch the villain. They’ve already shed the need for presidential reverence and are willing to be led by someone they neither like nor respect. They’ll turn the government over to him and his team of plutocrats and go back to their lives. They’ll say “give Trump a chance,” and move on.
They’ll sit back and watch Trump demolish the wall between the presidency and big business, including the businesses he and his children own; creating a kleptocracy that would make Putin proud.
Trump’s cabinet picks seem designed to unwind government itself, leaving the average citizen completely exposed and vulnerable to full exploitation by corporate interests. Meanwhile, Trump seems to have little interest in the details of the job of president and no appreciation for its seriousness. This is particularly alarming, since he and much of his team are in full swoon to an adversarial power, which helped get him elected, and is likely to have unprecedented sway over our international affairs.
And yet, Republicans on the Hill are shrinking before our eyes; with many even pretending Russian intrusion is no big deal. They are unlikely to touch him, so long as he signs their bills privatizing Social Security, overturning Obamacare and gutting Medicare. As long as he signs their tax cuts for the rich and for big business and unleashes Wall Street to fire up the casino again (which will be ironic given Trump’s utter failure in the casino business), he could literally turn the White House into a private club like he did Mar-a-Lago, hand the checks to Ivanka, and Republican elected officials and voters would do precisely nothing.
So what can the rest of us do?
For one, Americans must give elected Democrats the backbone to fight, and replace those who lack it. A relentless and vocal populace, shorn of presidential reverence, can demand that its representatives get on the battlefield and stay there. Americans should never again concede the notion that we “owe” the president our awe. Demand that your public officials, both nationally and locally, fight Donald Trump like they’re the Republicans, and he’s Barack Obama.