When it’s all said and done we usually wind up right back in high school. Rational and engaged political actors have been racking our brains over the Trump phenomenon for a full two years now. Closeted racism helps explain some of it but it just doesn’t cut it no matter how convenient the truth may be. We have tried to figure out how in the hell a train-wreck, tire-fire, comb-over clown like Donald Trump can maintain a durable 38% approval rating in a supposedly civilized society and first-world democracy. Professional pundits tend to focus on how LOW that number is but they are looking at it as trained analysts. To an outsider who just follows politics every day and votes in every election 38% sounds like a SKY HIGH achievement when you reflect on this guy’s performance since he became a permanent cast member in the dramatic comedy and Greek tragedy that American politics have become.
The idea that roughly 4 in 10 Americans approve of a president who is a shameless Putin fluffer, pussy-grabber, race-baiter and scandal jockey is INSANE. I’m STILL not buying it. I am not doubting the pollsters’ findings, but I am challenging the information being reported to them by those they are surveying. Something else is going on that explains what is REALLY motivating that 4 in 10 and I have finally figured it out.
I was binge watching Netflix to escape the irritating coverage of this stupid “Nunes Memo” story and the wall to wall pre-Super Bowl hype when I picked up a new perspective on this dynamic. It immediately took me right back to high school. I realized that Barack Obama is the easy-going, self-assured cool guy everybody likes and Donald Trump is the entitled, loud-mouthed prick who hates that guy and stands on his sense of entitlement to grab any attention he can get. And he gets his share because of it.
I came to this realization watching the incomparable David Letterman’s new Netflix series “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.” The episodes are extended format intimate interviews and retrospectives, with the big hook being that everybody appearing on the show is an “extra special guest” caliber heavy hitter. And his very first show featured none other than Barack Obama. The audience did not know who the special guest was going to be and when Dave introduced him, the roar from the crowd was so loud it seemed like the roof would blow right off of New York’s City College auditorium. It was an awesome and uplifting spectacle. Of course the interview was fantastic, with Dave’s signature wise-cracking and Obama’s signature comedic timing and entertaining rapport reminding us what it was like to turn on the television and see THAT every day instead of the bitter, bloated, orange-faced blow-hard we have now. The very same thing can be said for Obama’s guest appearance on Jerry Seinfeld’s incredibly enjoyable series “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee.”
Obama is just cool and Jerry was clearly loving the access he had to hang out with #44. If you are waiting for Dave or Jerry to make time to hang out with Donald Trump I have a word of advice: Don’t hold your breath.
Let’s be candid: Obama is young. He is handsome. He is fit. He is dapper. He is both smart and wise. He is eloquent to the point that it stands out regardless of who else may be sharing the stage with him. He is undeniably one of the greatest success stories in American history. And despite all of that he is always humble, composed, relatable and human- going out of his way to make sure that anybody watching sees a genuine connection to themselves. His popularity is based entirely on positivity and inclusion and will endure forever for that reason. He has danced with his daughter while Prince rocked his guitar for him at a private party. He has danced with his wife while Stevie Wonder brought the crowd to their feet banging his keyboard. And he has gamely danced and laughed with our girl Ellen while she lost her unshakable cool to Flo’ Rida.
His magnetism is unmatched in any politician in any era and anybody who is down with Obama feels like they are at the ultimate cool kids table. Everybody is there: the despised Hollywood “in-crowd” and the maligned New York “elites”, stars of the arts and sports worlds, select foreign leaders, noteworthy scholars as well as our foremost leaders in innovation and commerce.
But there is a group of people who would love to be a part of the party who have locked themselves out. Those who have always felt duty-bound to oppose Barack Obama are deeply jealous and resentful of being on the outside of such an amazing phenomenon. They desperately want one of their own to rally around- somebody exciting and charismatic to make them feel like THEY are at the cool kids table.
So Trump came along and offered them a taste of delicious revenge. He has been a TV star for many years and he chose to sit with THEM and give the finger to all of the cool kids he’s been hanging around with all this time. He’s using them of course but they can’t be bothered with that inconvenient truth.
They are going to hang on to him and savor him like the last peanut M&M in the bag no matter what he says or does. They have never felt like this before- at the center table at the invitation of the big man on campus. They have screamed to feel relevant for so long- stuck largely in “fly over country” and feeling ridiculed for their Red State sensibilities. The few “celebrities” they could get to sit with them are either old as hell (Clint Eastwood) or entirely inconsequential on the scene (Dennis Miller). So the Trump phenomenon certainly has nothing to do with policy. It certainly does have something to do with race but not quite as much as we’d assume. It has a whole lot to do with feeling good- even feeling cool for once. Trump is the one who gave them that feeling and they never want to feel like outsiders looking in again. That, my friends, is how you get to almost 40% of the people to approve of you no matter how poorly you actually perform. Take them back to high school and let them be the cool kids. And just like back then, the kids that want to be in will stick like glue to the one who let them in long after they realize for themselves that he is a jealous, selfish, entitled, loud-mouthed prick.