In the immediate days following the inauguration, while widespread protests have broken out over most of the country, the thing the media appears most intent to focus on, is the question of whether or not the crowds who attended Trump’s ceremony were smaller than those that turned out for Obama. This was the primary topic covered during the first press briefing of the Trump White House era. It has become a contentious issue, to say the least, but I won’t rehearse the details of the debate again here. What I wanted to comment on, briefly, is the phenomena of Skeptical Trumpianism.
From a recent New Yorker article, “Intellectuals for Trump”:
All intellectuals who support politicians must make compromises, but Trump’s style makes those compromises harder to ignore. At times, Bauerlein sounded as if he were still figuring out what it meant to support President Trump — as if he were trying to stay optimistic while steeling himself for all sorts of disappointment. “There are some things in politics that you say, ‘This runs against what I believe.’ ” He lowered his voice. “You have to suck it up.”
Whether or not Trump has any ‘intellectuals’ following him I have no idea, (though he did score the coveted Žižek endorsement), but, among the more educated sub-section of Trump supporters at least, we do find a markedly pragmatic tone struck. You probably recall when Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian, remarked at the beginning of the Obama presidency that the incoming leader was “ probably the smartest guy ever to become President.” He also said of Obama, “[his] IQ is off the charts.” This is, in retrospect, amusing to remember, but it hopefully also demonstrates the left-leaning liberal ‘intellectual’ perception of Obama, at least in the early days, and I’m sure you’ll agree, it was by no means skeptical.
Obama was especially popular with the intellectuals of the University of Chicago, one of the universities in the country that most prides itself on its ‘intellectualism’. It was this connection that became the source of much of Obama’s reputation as the intellectual’s president, he had been a professor of constitutional law at a very prestigious law school, after all. He wasn’t a dummy, like George Bush, he was a smarty, a super smarty. From the University of Chicago Law School alumni magazine, 2009:
He came to the Law School and taught hundreds of students to think like lawyers and the students helped him to sift and think through myriad complex legal issues. In other words, even as President Obama left a lasting impression on the Law School and its students, that same environment helped to shape the man who became President Obama.
Needless to say, I am skeptical that Trump will be receiving the same treatment from an elite university anytime soon. But this is precisely the central contrast I’d like draw between the ‘intellectual’ reaction to the two Presidents: ‘intellectual’ support of Trump is heavily grounded in pragmatic skepticism. “You have to suck it up,” as someone so eloquently put it once.
Intellectual response to Obama was a hopeful one, it was one rooted in the romanticism of Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing, in the banal trivia of A.P. American History classes, and in the crypto-civic-patriotism of hour long NPR shows on the latest FDR biography or the secret connection between Atticus Finch and Abraham Lincoln. It should come as no surprise to anyone that, rather than Andrew Shepherd or Josiah Bartlet, the media intellectuals, who had so lionized Obama, have cast Trump in the opposite mold, as Voldermort or Darth Vader.
The Trumpist intellectuals, instead of praising him in a similar manner as their Democrat counterparts, as another Reagan (though I’m sure some probably do), have approached him rather as a the second-coming of Richard Nixon. What is remarkable is that the potential corruption of Trump presidency is almost taken as a given by his intellectual followers, it appears to have been pre-baked into their support of him in a way it never was with Obama.
That Trump did not draw the crowds that Obama did, if true, is perhaps more understandable in this light. Support for Trump is built not around an aesthetic appreciation of Trump as a Presidential ‘character,’ modeled after one of Sorkin’s creations, but as a hard-headed and pragmatic deal-maker.
This underlines the peculiar nature of the Trumpian beast, support for it is not founded on Trump’s likability, which is why all attempts by Alec Baldwin and Saturday Night Live have failed so miserably to skewer his reputation. This is also, I believe, why accurate polling this past election was so difficult, as an entirely separate metric than his likability or even his credibility as a human being is needed. Support of Trump is predicated upon his ability to win, to humble the Republican and Democratic parties, the media, and everyone else. This, in turn, dovetails extremely nicely with one of the main themes of Trump’s entire campaign: No one is winning anymore on America’s behalf. When America goes to make a deal with a foreign entity, it’s rare today for American’s to have any faith that they didn’t get shafted.
Will Trump, who continues to prove that he can win, use that ability in America’s favor? Or will he only enrich himself? That he will only use his office to benefit himself is something I remain a bit skeptical, though this seems to be the refrain running through most of the liberal-left criticism of Trump I hear. He has conflicts of interest, we are told. But Trump never has had much difficulty in enriching himself without direct recourse to politics, so why start now?
The pomp and ceremony of the Presidential office is a major source of its appeal, and for the most part, our Presidents go down a set road to attain it. President’s spend millions and millions of dollars refurbishing their retreats and having their private residences outfitted with presidential conveniences. Though many presidents are wealthy, and earn considerable sums from speaking, legal practice, insider trading, bribery, charity scams etc., few have entered office with the kind of long-standing private wealth that Trump has at his disposal. Can the primary objective of his presidency really be then the further acquisition of private wealth? No, while Obama was interested above all else in the splendor of the office, Trump is interested in its power.
His presidency is bound to be an active one, whether or not it will be good or bad for America remains to be seen. Trump will be an active president, primarily interested in the wide exercise of his various powers. For years we, as a nation, have struggled with the problem of how to design and enact large-scale reform and reorganization of our government. This involves making many changes that are bound to be unpopular. Trump is the liquidation man, the consultant America has hired to cut costs and streamline government. America is not likely to be enthusiastic about Trump, but there is a reason even for skeptics to believe he can change the country in ways Obama never could have hoped to. The reason for Trump’s advantage comes down not to some secret likability he possess, but rather it is precisely his unlikability that makes him such an effective political foil to the institutions Americans have, across the country, and regardless of political affiliation, largely come to distrust.