A premise is something we take for granted. Premises are usually at the basis of arguments or theories, and sometimes of substantial bodies of knowledge, such as the premise that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, which serves as the foundation of linear geometry.
An inaccurate premise will get a writer or thinker into trouble in a hurry. Hewing to a wrong-headed premise leads to complicated and generally fuzzy arguments, often based on semantics, logical flaws and the distortion of facts.
Take (please) the premise that everything that goes wrong in the United States is the fault of government, or Democrats or both. This premise has led to some truly bizarre arguments, such as:
- Blaming federal agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for the great recession of 2008 because they made too much money available for low-interest mortgages. This explanation ignores the fact that these federal agencies did not approve mortgages with little or no documentation for people with insufficient funds, nor did they sell bundles of these faulty loans knowing the securities were much riskier than advertised, nor did they rate these securities without sufficient due diligence.
- Blaming the Clinton Administration for 9/11, even though we have plenty of proof that our security services were receiving lots of warnings of 9/11 in the summer before it happened, which the Bush II administration chose to ignore.
- Blaming Obama for the rise of ISIS, even though it was the Bush II administration that destabilized the region by invading Iraq, without cause as it turns out.
One of the New York Times resident conservatives, Ross Douthat, joins in the false blame game in his article titled “From Obama to Trump.” His contention is that Obama is largely to blame for the rise of Donald Trump, for two reasons:
- Obama created the “celebrity presidency”
- Obama has exercised an imperial presidency, which has accustomed voters to Trump’s strong man declarations.
Republicans started comparing Obama to a celebrity during the 2008 election. Somehow the endorsement of Obama by Oprah Winfrey, Sarah Silverman and other actors and celebrities was different from past celebrity endorsements of presidential candidates. Douthat ignores the fact that an actor served as president for eight year or that John F. Kennedy was considered close to a group of celebrities called “The Rat Pack,” famous for their womanizing, boozing, sexism and boorish behavior. He neglects the many histories of the Goldwater campaign, which mark a speech by a celebrity—Ronald Reagan—as its high point. He forgets that Lauren Bacall, Warren Beatty, Goldie Hawn, Burt Lancaster, Shirley MacLaine, Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor were all active supporters of George McGovern. What is it about Obama’s celebrity supporters that creates such a difference? Why were McGovern, Reagan, Kennedy and others not celebrity candidates or celebrity officer holders and Obama is one? Could it be because he and a few of those celebrity supporters are black?
Beyond the facts of the various celebrity endorsements that have litter presidential campaigns since World War II, is the change in focus in the coverage of elections that has occurred. Since the 1960 election of John Kennedy with fewer than 50% of the vote, the news media have gradually taken the focus of their election coverage away from issues and placed it on the same concerns that dominate celebrity news: Gotcha’s and mistakes. Personality clashes. What others think. Family life. Hobbies. Speaking style. Charisma. Skeletons in the closet. Long-time grievances and jealousies. Insulting other candidates. The latest popularity contest. The race for money. In every election, ever more time and space is devoted to “celebrity issues” and ever less time to economic, social, international and environmental issues. Moreover, since the turn of century, at the same time the media has been celebritizing our news, reality TV in all of its formats has grown to dominate broadcast and cable television.
Douthat ignores all of these facts to conclude that the rise of a boorish celebrity who has never run for office could not have occurred without Obama’s so-called celebrity presidency.
The accusation that Obama has created an imperial presidency is equally ludicrous, but it’s one we are hearing with ever greater frequency by Republicans. The contention is that Obama has made a number of power grabs by using expanded executive authority to launch wars without congressional approval and make domestic policy without congressional support. The right never complained about Republican imperial presidencies, and in fact, spent a lot of energy defending the imperial disasters of Republican presidents, such as Iran-Contra, Bush II’s Iraq War and the global American torture gulag. For their part, Democrats tend to complain about Republican presidential overreach..
The concern that the president has amassed too much power goes back at least to Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson. No president ever received more criticism for acting as if he owned the country than FDR did. In general, the presidency has had too much power since at least the end of World War II. To blame Obama for presidential overreach and then say that’s why we seem willing to accept a narcissistic proto-fascist is absurd. The American people are quite used to a president who acts on his own.
I have no idea why Trump is so popular, just as I have no idea why people watch reality shows like “Survivor” and “The Apprentice,” why people prefer Las Vegas to New York City, why so many people found Bush II likeable or why everyone said the notecard-reading Ronald Reagan beat the encyclopedically knowledgeable and analytically brilliant Jimmy Carter in their debate. In my mind, Trump was always a garish and womanizing buffoon who defined the term celebrity: someone who is famous for nothing more than being famous.
We should keep in mind that Trump is the favorite candidate of somewhere between 35-40% of all Republican voters, who represent a mere 26% of the electorate. At most the informal party of Trump comprises about 10 % of all voters. In other words, an ignorant and angry fringe is hijacking a divided Republican Party, but that party has spent eight years fomenting anger at government, society and our president. For years Republicans have fanned the fires of racism, sexism and resentment of the other. The rightwing media has promoted a series of lies about science, health issues, the environment and economic theory to its millions of viewers. If Douthat is really interested in assessing the conditions that have created the probability that a vulgar, name-calling liar like Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee for president, he should look to the Grand Old Party itself.