August 1, 2017

Trump in the Woody Allen Era

“I think it’s pretty hard to argue that somebody who almost three-quarters of the country thinks is unqualified to be president and has a negative opinion about is tapping into the zeitgeist of the country or is speaking for a broad base of the country. But we’ll find out,” Obama said in a late June 2016 interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep. Well, we found out a few months later, on Tuesday, November 8, 2016.. After clinching the GOP nomination with his unorthodox presidential campaign, Donald Trump won over the hearts and minds of the American people and conquered the presidency.

Obama’s comments came in response to a question about a statement he had made during his 2008 campaign. Previous presidents, such as John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, he said, “changed the trajectory of America,” and that’s exactly what he himself wanted to do. Trump, on the contrary, according to the former president, wasn't on pace to change the trajectory of America. Well, fortunately for the Country and unfortunately for the prophet, what we are witnessing nowadays is exactly the opposite.

How and why things went the way they did and continue to go the way they do? How could The Donald achieve such a spectacular success? Paradoxically, and paraphrasing what Peggy Noonan wrote in her column in the Wall Street Journal some days ago, by ignoring traditional norms and forms of American masculinity. But let’s follow her reasoning for a moment:

The president’s primary problem as a leader is not that he is impetuous, brash or naive. It’s not that he is inexperienced, crude, an outsider. It is that he is weak and sniveling. It is that he undermines himself almost daily by ignoring traditional norms and forms of American masculinity.

He’s not strong and self-controlled, not cool and tough, not low-key and determined; he’s whiny, weepy and self-pitying. He throws himself, sobbing, on the body politic. He’s a drama queen. It was once said, sarcastically, of George H.W. Bush that he reminded everyone of her first husband. Trump must remind people of their first wife. Actually his wife, Melania, is tougher than he is with her stoicism and grace, her self-discipline and desire to show the world respect by presenting herself with dignity.
His public brutalizing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions isn’t strong, cool and deadly; it’s limp, lame and blubbery. “Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes,” he tweeted this week. Talk about projection.

He told the Journal’s Michael C. Bender he is disappointed in Mr. Sessions and doesn’t feel any particular loyalty toward him. “He was a senator, he looks at 40,000 people and he probably says, ‘What do I have to lose?’ And he endorsed me. So it’s not like a great loyal thing about the endorsement.” Actually, Mr. Sessions supported him early and put his personal credibility on the line. In Politico, John J. Pitney Jr. of Claremont McKenna College writes: “Loyalty is about strength. It is about sticking with a person, a cause, an idea or a country even when it is costly, difficult or unpopular.” A strong man does that. A weak one would unleash his resentments and derive sadistic pleasure from their unleashing.

The way American men used to like seeing themselves, the template they most admired, was the strong silent type celebrated in classic mid-20th century films—Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Henry Fonda. In time the style shifted, and we wound up with the nervous and chattery. More than a decade ago the producer and writer David Chase had his Tony Soprano mourn the disappearance of the old style: “What they didn’t know is once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings they wouldn’t be able to shut him up!” The new style was more like that of Woody Allen. His characters couldn’t stop talking about their emotions, their resentments and needs. They were self-justifying as they acted out their cowardice and anger.

But he was a comic. It was funny. He wasn’t putting it out as a new template for maleness. Donald Trump now is like an unfunny Woody Allen.

Well, perhaps (or without perhaps) that’s a bit too harsh and one-sided, but Peggy Noonan was substantially right when she spoke about “the shifting of style” from “the strong silent type” to the “nervous and chattery” one, perfectly impersonated by Woody Allen. Actually, Americans have gone through a monumental shift of style in the last decades, something that has perhaps never happened before: these days the way they like seeing themselves, the template they most admire, as Peggy Noonan put it, is not the one celebrated in classic mid-20th century films anymore. This is the Woody Allen era. Today it’s no longer about Gary Cooper and John Wayne, nor is it even about Ronald Reagan.

Let’s be honest, Ronald Reagan couldn’t get elected today, don’t you think, Mrs. Peggy Noonan? On the contrary, only Donald Trump could be able to defeat Hillary Clinton. Trump won because he was the best choice, and this for the simple reason that he—unlike any other Republican or even Democratic candidate, including Bernie Sanders—tapped into the zeitgeist of the country. This means, among other things, that what Peggy Noonan considers ”weakness”—lack of self-control, Trump’s not being “low-key and determined” as well as his being “whiny, weepy and self-pitying,” etc.—is exactly what makes him the best choice in this very time and place in terms of communication style and ways of behaving. But, more importantly, this also means that his political views and policies—or Trump’s right-wing populism, as his detractors put it—are on the same wavelength as the majority of the American people.

That’s also why, paradoxically, we old-fashioned men who grew up with John Wayne’s movies and the idea that men were supposed to keep their emotions in check and not make a big deal out of everything…, we Conservatives of today and, at the same time, nostalgic of the Reagan era and of a past that can never return, should be happy about Trump’s alleged weakness and flaws. They are at very core of his (and our) success.