Politics & Policy

Goodbye, Boring Candidates — Hello, Boring Hysteria

(Reuters photo: Carlos Barria)
On the rise of celebrity candidates and of the over-the-top public reaction they provoke

‘It was a ceremony fit for the gods.” That was the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, way back in August of 2008, describing Barack Obama’s history-making acceptance of the Democratic presidential nomination.

It seems so long ago, doesn’t it? Though somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the description wasn’t that far off. If the Beatles, as an insouciant John Lennon once claimed, were more popular than Jesus, Obama could certainly qualify as the Beatles of politics. Remember the crying fans? The Newsweek and Rolling Stone covers mocked up with a halo and a saintly glow? The infamous fake Greek colonnade, which the McCain campaign christened the “Temple of Obama?”

I remember thinking, about midway through Obama’s second term, that the next president would probably be the quiet type, and maybe even a bit of a bore: a Scott Walker, perhaps, nit-picking budget ideas while punctually tweeting about his bargain-basement daily ham sandwiches; or maybe even the glorious Mitch Daniels, beacon of Indiana competence and occasional member of the Midwest’s most responsible middle-aged motorcycle gang. Who, after all, could keep up with an Obama-esque spectacle for another four years? Don’t we all, deep down, really wish for Washington to simply handle the basics and otherwise leave us alone?

If you’re snickering right now, don’t worry. I’m not mad. From the perspective of 2018, it’s all admittedly hilarious. Laugh it up, my friends, and pour one out for what seems to be a rare and shrinking breed: the small-government, libertarian-leaning, “leave us alone” coalition in American politics. Meanwhile, I’ll be in the corner, reading a biography of “Silent Cal” Coolidge, my top nominee for zombie president if that season of politics eventually comes.

Donald Trump, it is fair to say, is not boring. He’s also our first official inexperienced celebrity president, ready to pump up the volume to 11 and beyond. Over the past year, various pundits have huddled, yeoman-like, huffing and puffing about how this whole situation is “not normal” and tragic and terrifying and the end the world as we know it. Amusingly, for an alarming number of those very same pundits, it took only one special lady, a goofy Hollywood awards show, and a week of frenzied headlines to rip off a series of sanctimonious masks. If the inexperienced celebrity president turns out to be Oprah, you see, it would be not only perfectly okay for the nation but “healing” to boot!

I mean, seriously, people. The woman gave one decent speech at the Golden Globes and suddenly we’re apparently ready to hoist a beaming Mao-style Oprah statue over the Washington Mall. The lesson seems fairly clear: Boring, at least for the moment, is over in American politics, and the “shrinking violet” presidency is a gravely endangered species. This is a bipartisan phenomenon. It is not limited to Donald Trump.

What is seemingly limited to Donald Trump, however, is an extra-special ability to drive the media over the edge. If you’ve been paying attention, Donald Trump’s first year as president has gone far better than most of his election-season critics — including yours truly — expected. We have seen multiple embarrassments and glitches. We have also seen a series of significant successes. I humbly suggest that we wait and see what comes.

With each ratchet of predictable hysteria, in fact, things grow increasingly — how do I put this gently? — boring.

But in certain media circles, the proverbial printing press seems stuck in one of a few predictable gears, no matter the news of the day: Russia. A vague presidential “coup.” Fox News. Bathrobes. Mental instability. On one day, we’re told that Trump’s North Korea tweets are going to blow up the world; on a slower news day, we’re told that Republican tax cuts are going to blow up the world. (Meanwhile, in the quieter corners of the news, we see that South Korea’s president has actually praised Trump, and that major companies are busy sharing their tax cuts with undoubtedly happy employees.)

With each ratchet of predictable hysteria, in fact, things grow increasingly — how do I put this gently? — boring.

It’s ironic, isn’t it? These days, boring is the worst thing one can be! But for certain one-track minds, Trump is the topic that never gets old. How else can we explain the obsession with Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury, which is widely admitted to play fast and loose with the facts? How else can we explain the news that “dozens of ‘resistance’ books,” as CNBC reports, are scheduled for 2018? I don’t know about you, but obsessing over the president’s television-watching habits gets kind of old after the first few hundred go-rounds. How long can we really keep this up?

In the New York Times this week, David Brooks noted that the “anti-Trump movement, of which I’m a proud member, seems to be getting dumber.” He’s right. It’s also getting stridently boring, which might be the cardinal sin of today’s raucous politics.

The answer to this problem is fairly simple. First, there is a clear difference between reflexive, predictable, anti-Trump hysteria and offering reasoned critiques of the Trump administration and its policies. Second, things might go south — and they might not! — but for heaven’s sake, commentators, I’d humbly suggest waiting until we get there. When the American media have managed to make even the wildest-eyed, ultra-frenzied talk of coups painfully boring, you know we’re in questionable shape.


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