Fox News Anchor Shepherd Smith once said American politics is weird and creepy. He’s right. And it’s not just weird — it’s dark, ironic, exhilarating.
Isn’t that why it attracts the chatter and attention of the whole world over? Yes, it’s true that the United States is the Earth’s foremost economic and military powerhouse. This is reason enough for the rest of the world to keep an eye on it, as a mouse watches a cat from its hiding place.
But this isn’t the sole reason we watch. We don’t only visit the realm of the White House for a daily dose of political developments. We want to be moved. Perhaps more than ever, American politics is a fertile source of dark humour. I, for one, can’t get enough of it.
Does that make me a bad person?
American politics is funny, but it’s also very serious business. The real-world ramifications of every House vote, every press release, every hot-headed Tweet and quip are nothing to scoff at. While we sit behind our phones laughing and shaking our heads at the latest in political absurdity, that same absurdity may inflict grievous harm and suffering.
When the American government goofs, families lose their homes. Workers lose their health care. People lose their livelihoods. Some even lose their lives.
Even if we aren’t laughing at those who are suffering, the fact that we are in any position to laugh at all reveals the extent of our privilege.
I’ve been wondering about this since the vote last November. Like many of my ilk, my initial thought on President Donald Trump’s election was, “This is terrible, but it’ll be great for comedy.” It has been so. But since then, I’ve also watched friends and strangers go through such strife and heartache at the hands of the Comedy President.
I think this is what they call cognitive dissonance.
Recently, I found another perspective on this an article written by Steven Johnson for The Guardian. Johnson posed the same question I’ve asked myself: Is it wrong to laugh at Donald Trump? His answer is as follows:
I find the persistence of laughter to be heartening, as incongruous as it might seem. Incongruity is one of the fundamental forces in the universe of comedy: take two things that don’t usually belong together; throw them into the same sentence; hilarity ensues. Dark comedy in particular thrives in juxtaposing the solemn, the mortal, with the petty and the prurient. So it makes sense that we should find ourselves reaching for punchlines when we want to throw punches. When things are bleak, we lean on humor to fight back, to build bonds, to whittle away at the pedestals of the powerful.
Maybe dark times call for dark humour. And I have no intention to stop laughing — even if I wanted to, I don’t think I could. But I expect the dissonance will remain.
This week marks President Donald Trump’s 100th day in office. Though this is an arbitrary number, pundits and other observers are treating it as a milestone.
Much has been made of what President Trump has, or has not, accomplished during this period of time. The Boston Globe says his first 100 days have been “unlike any other.” Much has been made of his two failed anti-immigration measures, his diplomatic spills with Russia and North Korea, and his numerous week trips to Mar-a-Lago.
So are they right? Are Trump’s first 100 days in office really unlike those of any other president?
Various news outlets have compared President Trump to his most predecessor, Barack Obama. They do so with the benefit of hindsight. What I’d like to do instead is look at how the same media assessed a predecessor back then.
Let’s compare him to the previous Republican President, George W. Bush.
100 Days of George W. Bush
I’ll get this out of the way now: George Bush Junior’s hundredth day came on April 29, 2001. That’s five months before the defining event of his time in office. Obviously, the public’s perception of him would shift dramatically at that point.
Back in April of ’01, Bush was a different character. To start, ABC News noted that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle commended him as a man with a clear vision and a plan to get things done. He was noted as a great listener and a keen learner. Bush enjoyed a 62% approval rating.
This was surprising, given that George W. Bush’s election victory was mired with controversy, including accusations of tampering and interference with the vote counts. As president, one of his first tasks was to escaping the shadow of the Florida recount and make his mark on the office. He largely succeeded. Sound familiar?
Perhaps most surprisingly, and somewhat ironic, is the call for Bush to become more hands-on in his role as President. We don’t normally think of George W. Bush as one who avoided the spotlight during his presidency, but he did just that in his first hundred days.
Does he have anything in common with Trump’s first 100? Yes. Bush had a minor diplomatic flap with China over the Hainan Island Incident, where an American fight jet collided with a Chinese jet and made an emergency landing on the island (the Chinese pilot did not survive.) Bush also ordered attacks on Iraq to enforce a no-fly zone, which commentators have likened to President Trump’s airstrike on Syria.
Like Trump, Bush also had a hard time putting his election promises into action. His omnibus tax cut legislation was still struggling through Congress, and he hadn’t turned his attention to other big issues like Medicare and social security.
You like Ike. I like Ike. Who doesn’t love this campaign?
It ranks as among the most memorable political marketing of the 20th century. Not only is it one of the great entries in campaign advertising, it’s great advertising, period. I Like Ike is catchy. It’s succinct. It’s memorable.
Before ‘viral’ was a form of marketing in and of itself, I Like Ike had voters tapping their toes and humming along all the way to the ballot box.
Dwight Eisenhower, playfully nicknamed “Ike”, lead the Allied forces to victory at the end of the second world war. He was subsequently promoted to Chief of Staff of the United States Army and named Supreme Commander of NATO. Not surprisingly, this made him enormously popular. He was a war hero with a friendly face.
Unlike our current crop of politicians, many of whom are born and bred to run for Congress or Senate, Ike Eisenhower bore no intentions of becoming president. He rejected all requests for him to enter the political realm for years.
Ike didn’t like politics. He was a soldier, and a leader, but not a politician. In fact, before his own election, he had never even voted.
But that didn’t matter in 1952. Slow progress in the Korean War had made President Harry Truman unpopular, with a 66% disapproval rating. Democrats were desperate to fix their brand, and Republicans eager to overtake them. Recognizing that Americans had an affinity for the General, sectors of both parties set out to ‘draft’ Ike to their side.
Peter G. Peterson, the Republican who would later be Secretary of Commerce under Richard Nixon, snatched “I Like Ike” from the mouths of voters and built it into an marketing push. It caught on. Over a hundred thousand voters wrote-in Ike’s name for the Republican New Hampshire primary, despite him not having announced for either party.
The unprecedented show of support pushed him to formally enter the race.
With the support of the Republican Party, “I Like Ike” reached new heights in the general election. Famed songwriter Irving Berlin turned it into a song. Walt Disney Studios produced a cartoon to go along with it, which became the first political campaign ads aired on television.
The rest is history. Ike Eisenhower won with 55% of the popular vote. He topped himself in 1956, winning re-election with 58%.
“Mr. President, I’m sorry.”
That is just one of the fraught election night phone calls that mark the climax of the new book Shattered, described as an autopsy of Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign.
President Donald Trump’s victory came as a shock to much of the world. But it would seem just as shocking that the Clinton campaign, with all its pollsters and data and to-the-minute reporting, was caught off guard as well.
According to Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, that is exactly what happened.
The Clintons were confident. There was no concession speech, no plan B. The Democratic Party was so stunned by the defeat that it took not one but three phone calls from the White House to coax out a concession.
Journalists Allen and Parnes followed Hillary Clinton’s campaign for a year and a half, reporting on the ins and outs of what was once thought to be the unstoppable push to the presidency. Now, in the aftermath of the loss and the tumultuous months since President Trump’s ascendancy, Allen and Parnes have published an insider look at the years and months leading up to the 2016 presidential election.
They say that hindsight is 20/20, and that seems to be the through line of the Shattered narrative. The book sheds light on signs of trouble that arose months before the big day. Interviews from campaign staff and Clinton camp insiders reveal a dysfunctional state of affairs that pursued flawed tactics and ignored key members of the Democratic party base.
To be sure, President Trump was a new kind of opponent. He was, and still is, a game-changer in American politics. But Shattered indicates that many of Clinton’s challenges came from within — a campaign that refused to adapt to the shifting tides.
Shattered is the first major 2016 tell-all to hit bookstore shelves, and it is sure to benefit from its punctuality. It will not be the last. It remains to be seen if it will be among the best. Regardless, it’s a welcome entry for insider-info-starved fans of Game Change and Double Down.
The stars aligned for Hillary Clinton.
In her second shot at the Oval Office, Clinton boasted an incredible roster of actors, artists, TV personalities, and sports stars. And her multi-million dollar campaign leveraged these connections in every possible way.
Clinton raffled off tickets to join Jay Z for dinner. Lady Gaga and Katy Perry performed at her rallies. Joss Whedon directed a pro-Democratic PSA starring Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson. On election day, Beyonce urged followers to vote for Clinton in a video that drew over 2 million views before the polls closed.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, the bench was far from full. Nor was it empty – Donald Trump won over the likes of Charlie Sheen, Kid Rock, Tim Allen, Tom Brady, and Kirstie Allie. But it goes without saying that their combined celebrity clout doesn’t match that of even one of the above Clinton cohorts.
Celebrity endorsements are not new in American politics. But the 2016 presidential election saw more star power all the previous races combined – and that’s including President Obama’s inaugural run in 2008.
Hollywood came out for Clinton. Voters didn’t. So, what happened?
Celebrity endorsements have long played a role in the presidential race. President Warren Harding is often credited with earning the very first celebrity endorsement in American history back in 1920. When actor Al Jolson recorded a catchy campaign tune for Harding, it helped propel him to a safe 60% victory.
The phenomenon seemed to peak in 2008, when Barack Obama gained the blessings of numerous actors and artists, including George Clooney, will.i.am, Brad Pitt, and Samuel L. Jackson. His most important endorsement came from Oprah Winfrey. One study found that Oprah alone increased voter participation by over a million votes.
Why do celebrity endorsements work? Because people consider celebrities more credible and trustworthy than politicians. Less informed voters are more likely to vote for someone with a celebrity endorsement. And young people are more likely to seek out information and participate when celebrities Tweet and post about politics.
There are a number of reasons why it was less effective this time around.
To start, most of Clinton’s celebrities appealed to the voters aged 18 to 24, the demographic that is least likely to get out and vote. Except for 2008 and 1992 (Obama’s first run and the first Rock the Vote campaign respectively), youth participation has declined each year since 1964.
Diminishing returns are another factor. Celebrity endorsements are not novel. Oprah broke her career-long silence on presidential politics when she endorsed Obama in 2008. Her endorsement of Clinton in 2016 did not have the same impact.
Others have pointed to growing cynicism towards celebrities. People know that their interests differ from those of millionaire actors and actresses. There’s a growing perception that so-called “Hollywood Elites” don’t understand or care for the common voter. And people simply don’t trust celebrities like they used to, especially in an age when the Twitterverse waits to pounce on celebrities for any political misstep.
But the biggest factor of all is simply the fact of her opponent.
Star power was baked in to the Trump campaign from day one. Donald Trump seamlessly transferred his TV persona to his political campaign. People knew who he was, what he stood for, and what to expect from him. He cut out the middleman when it came to celebrity endorsements. People didn’t go to Trump rallies to check out Katy Perry – they went to see the man himself.
Trump didn’t need celebrities to get his name out there. He was a walking endorsement himself.
Celebrities can help put the spotlight on an otherwise obscure candidate. In a race between two ordinary politicians, celebrities can help one outshine the other. 2016 was not that kind of race. President Trump stood out inherently, and no number of celebrity endorsements, followers, or viral PSAs could level the playing field.
When the President of the United States takes an unforeseen absence, the presidential line of succession determines who steps in to fill his shoes. Typically, that honour goes to the Vice President. But if this successor should suffer a similar fate, another must swiftly takes his place – and so on.
Previous posts looked at the top three contenders, followed by the second round of successors. Today, we’ll hold to tradition and try on the seventh, eight, and ninth suits in this long presidential line.
#7 Jeff Sessions
No other name in Washington evokes a sense of overbearing southern-ness quite like Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III.
For a man among President Trump’s earliest supporters, the Office of Attorney general seems a fitting reward. During his 20-year tenure as an Alabama Senator, Sessions was a lawyer with his eyes on the federal bench. But his nomination was quashed by controversy.
Today, Sessions sits pretty as the country’s highest law enforcement official, giving his former critics what-for.
As president, Sessions would not be too different from the current leader. Jeff Sessions and Trump are alike on nearly every plank of presidential policy, from the environment (“Carbon pollution is CO2, and that’s really not a pollutant; that’s a plant food”) to immigration and most everything in between. The only sticking point between them is on infrastructure.
While Sessions loves the idea of a border wall, he’s loathe to pay for it. President Sessions would prefer a more modest solution – perhaps a ditch or a particularly nasty fence.
#8 Ryan Zinke
Ryan Zinke hates trees and loves freedom.
Zinke entered college on a football scholarship and became a star linebacker. He transferred that energy and physical prowess to the battlefield, where he served as a Navy SEAL for 23 years. Zinke was even on Seal Team Six before they were cool.
When he returned to his homeland, Ryan Zinke became the first Navy SEAL to serve in the Senate. He published his memoirs, American Commander, with the writer behind the best-selling American Sniper. And now he’s Secretary of the Interior.
In short, he’s a walking, talking, book-writing American dream. As red white and blue as a jug of apple moonshine.
But what kind of president would he be? A Republican one. Typical of his kind, Zinke supports the wars in the middle east, hates Obamacare, and fights environmental regulation at every turn. Which is probably why President Trump named him to the office in charge of federal land and natural resources, including America’s national parks.
#9 The Mysterious Mike Young
Darkness falls. The streets are quiet. The wind gently carries a torn newspaper across an empty parking lot. The scene is otherwise motionless.
Suddenly, a roar pierces the silence. Not an a cry from an animal, but one from a machine. A black van speeds down the street and turns sharply into the lot, with two of its wheels hanging in the air. It crashes back down to earth and halts. A man steps out from the driver side door.
Could it be Mike Young?
Well, maybe. For all we know, it is. It’s not like we have any clue who he is or what he looks like. It could very well be Mike Young. Is it? We may never find out.
According to legend, Mike Young is both a businessman and a botanist. He’s a Democrat. Rumours are that he is a high-ranking civil servant in the Agricultural Department. And since President Trump has failed to have his nominee for Agriculture Secretary confirmed, Mike Young is the standing Secretary.
What bizarre sequence of events could lead to such a man becoming president? It’s not even certain that anything could. Since we’ve never gotten this far down the presidential line of succession before, no one’s sure if a person who was not confirmed by the Senate could become president.
But it’s not impossible. Nothing is impossible anymore. Not when the Mysterious Mike Young is pulling the strings.