Of Trump, Obama, and Brand Name Presidents

Mister Spock learns the burdens of command

W.J. Astore

Trump isn’t a politician — he’s a brand.  What he wants more than anything is brand loyalty.  So he plays to his base as much as possible, maintaining their loyalty by hitting “hot button” issues like immigration, abortion, white power, guns, Confederate generals, standing for the flag and the national anthem, the bible (while gassing peaceful protesters), and so on.

Obama was also a brand — but he arguably gave his most fervent supporters much less than Trump.  What I mean is this: Obama posed as a progressive but ruled mostly as a corporate Republican-lite, taking his base for granted, figuring quite rightly they had nowhere else to go.  What that meant in practice was a feckless administration that led to disillusion, setting the stage for another, much less moderate, brand name: Trump.

Early in 2010, I was flummoxed by Obama and his feckless leadership.  Tapping into my affection for science fiction and “Star Trek,” I wrote the article below on how Obama had to “Learn from Mr. Spock” and take bigger chances.  Of course, Obama had no interest in going big — he much preferred to cash in and go home.  And so he has.

Trump and Obama: well-known brand names, but one has served his base more loyally than the other.  Guess which one?  Hint: It’s the one who overacts, much like William Shatner playing Captain Kirk.

President Obama: Learn from Mr. Spock! (Posted 1/27/2010)

President Obama’s cool, cerebral, logical style has drawn comparisons to Mr. Spock of Star Trek, as played by Leonard Nimoy in the original series from the 1960s.  Like that half-Vulcan, half-human Spock, Obama is a man of two worlds, of White America and Black America, of Kansas and Kenya.  Like Spock, he’s a careful thinker, a man who measures his words with precision, a man who seems to pride himself in being in control of his emotions.

Yet perhaps the most telling similarity between fictional Spock and factual Obama is their lack of command experience.  Spock was Captain Kirk’s loyal first officer.  An expert in science, he had no desire to gain the captain’s chair.  Before he gained the Oval Office, Obama was a community organizer, a law professor, a state senator, and a U.S. senator.  Respectable positions, but not ones requiring a command presence.

Both lack Kirk-like swagger, yet each had to take command.  In Spock’s case, it came in the Star Trek episode, “The Galileo Seven.”  His decisions, the criticisms he faces, even his mistakes are uncannily like those of Obama in his first year of office.

To set the scene: Spock leads six crewmembers in a shuttlecraft that crashes on a dangerous planet.  As Spock and crew race against time to repair their disabled craft, they are attacked by a primitive race of large, hairy humanoids.  While facing down an enemy he barely understands, Spock simultaneously has to win the trust of a crew that thinks he’s a heartless machine, and perhaps even a malfunctioning one at that.  He succeeds, but only after experiencing a most unSpock-like inspiration.

Along the way, Spock makes several questionable decisions.  He seeks both to understand the hostile primitives and to intimidate them.  Rather than hitting them hard, he directs fire away from them, concluding “logically” that they’ll run away and stay away after seeing “phaser” fire.  Meanwhile, he posts a guard in a vulnerable position.  The result: the primitives return, the guard is killed, and a vacillating Spock is barely able to keep control over an increasingly insolent crew.

What went wrong?  Spock doesn’t know.  Logically, the primitives should have respected the superior technology of the marooned crew.  But as the thoroughly human Dr. McCoy points out, the primitives were just as likely to act irrationally as rationally.  Facing dangerous intruders in their midst, they didn’t run and hide; they attacked with unappeasable anger.

While under attack, Spock even experiences a moment of “analysis paralysis” as he thinks out loud about his failings.  A crewmember cuttingly remarks, “We could use a little inspiration.”  Even the good doctor calls for less analysis and more action.

Now, let’s turn to Obama.  Consider the Republicans as stand-ins for the hairy primitives (resemblances, if any, are purely coincidental).  Throughout his first year of office, Obama acted as if he could both reason with them – creating an amicable modus vivendi – and intimidate them if the occasion demanded.

What he failed to realize (the “irrational” or “illogical” element) was that Republicans could neither be convinced by sweet talk nor intimidated by warning shots.  Implacable opposition and anger were their preferred options.  By misinterpreting his opponents, Spock lost a crewmember; Obama (perhaps) a legacy.

How does Spock recover and save the day?  By gambling.  As the repaired shuttlecraft crawls into orbit, Spock jettisons what little fuel remains and ignites it.  Like sending up a flare, the redoubtable Mr. Scott, the chief engineer, notes ruefully, as the shuttle starts to burn up on reentry.  But the desperate gamble works.  Kirk, showing his usual command resourcefulness, had stretched his orders just enough to stay within scanning range of the planet.  Seeing the flare, he beams Spock and the other survivors on board the Enterprise a split-second before the shuttle disintegrates.

The lesson?  Sometimes a commander has to grab the reins of command and act. Sometimes, he even has to gamble at frightfully long odds.  Earlier, Spock had said he neither enjoyed command nor was he frightened by it.  He had to learn to enjoy it – and to be frightened by it.  In the process, he learned that cool logic and rational analysis are not enough: not when facing determined opponents and seemingly lost causes.

So, President Obama, what can you learn from Spock’s first command?  That we could use a little inspiration.  That we want less analysis and more action.  That we may even need a game-changing gamble.

C’mon, Mr. President: Jettison the fuel and ignite it.  Maybe, just maybe, the path you blaze will lead us home again.

Postscript (7/1/20): Obama never took command.  He never took risks on behalf of progressive principles.  (Perhaps he just didn’t have any.)  The emptiness of his brand enabled Trump.  Will Trump’s emptiness enable more fecklessness in the name of Joe Biden?

28 thoughts on “Of Trump, Obama, and Brand Name Presidents

  1. As a fervent Trekkie who loves the original best, I applaud and delight in your analysis. The fact that it’s spot-on is a bonus!

    I, too, was vastly disappointed in Obama’s passivity. My heart sank when he appointed Hillary to State; I assumed it must have been the result of a political deal made at the time of the Dem convention. And then when Goldman Sachs received direct entree to the Oval Office, well….. The last straw was Obama’s behind-the-scenes capitulation that brought us the ACA. When he gave up single payer, AND browbeat into submission Dennis Kucinich, the Progressive warrior for single payer, I knew that we collectively might as well abandon all hope for real change.

    As for the abomination now occupying the White House, you’re correct: he works the brand much harder than his predecessor; he needs to. In his case, however, it’s like making one lab’s brand of bio-weapon more popular than another lab’s version.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes — Obama and Crew saw progressives as their worst enemy while actively courting Republicans — “reaching across the aisle,” as they say. Every time he reached, Obama got slapped. And every time progressives fought for higher pay or single-payer health care, etc., he slapped them.

      Courting the right got Obama nothing but money. It got us Trump.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks, I love Star Trek (always a hook for me). Well thought out, but I’ve got nothing here.
    Am just glad that “flumoxxed” was used. I love that word.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Ah-hah! It was often said on the original series and the feature movies that Spock was “the most human” member of the Enterprise crew! I didn’t see your original 2010 article–and BTW, as a Trekker I was pretty offended when the “Obama as Spock” nonsense started to appear!–but I must say Trump is doing a splendid job playing the role of that enormous, hairy, primitive beast! We need to all set our phasers to Maximum and give him a nice hot foot! Playing a role is exactly what Trump is doing, but he doesn’t read the cascade of “bad reviews.” He just wallows in the adoration of his racist supporters.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. In his affection for drones and bombing and wars, Obama was much more Romulan than Vulcan. And Trump would make a great Klingon — except the Klingons have honor.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Excellent point! A real Klingon would gladly face death before dishonor. Can you imagine, in your wildest Covid-19 induced hallucination, Donald J. Trump offering himself up to the Grim Reaper over a matter of principle?!? Mr. Bone Spurs!!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I was “flummoxed” in late 2008 (after the election but before the inauguration) when he made a lame excuse for not putting his daughters into their “zoned” public school.

    My favorite part was your “Postscript (7/1/2020)” — The “emptiness of his command,” indeed.

    Surely, “This couldn’t or shouldn’t have happened then!”
    Or now: https://thiscantbehappening.net/

    Liked by 1 person

  5. There is a fundamental political flaw in this argument. It’s easy to focus on presidents as being totally responsible for whatever political orientation or direction the country takes during their time in office. So Obama runs as a progressive, and then governs as a neoliberal Republican-lite.

    This focus on “the leader” is a politically flawed argument because it ignores the role of grassroots mobilizations, or the lack thereof. When Obama won, what I remember is a great sigh of relief across the progressive spectrum, as people assumed that Obama would take care of the problems they’d been struggling with. I remember reading stories about the collapse of contributions to environmental organizations, for example.

    It’s understandable that people were tired of having struggled against 8 years of the torturer and war criminal George Bush. But as Frederick Douglass warned in a speech on August 3, 1857, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will…We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.” (see full quote below).

    With Obama in office, too many people thought they could stop putting their energy into the struggle, that there was no more need for sacrificing or risking their lives. And just as Douglass predicted, those in power conceded nothing, starting with the big banks winning their enormous bailout without the prosecution of a single one of the crooked bankers who profited so mightily from impoverishing millions of Americans.

    I am not making an all-or-nothing argument. The character of whoever happens to win the presidency does matter. But without sustained mass mobilizations, we should never except anyone holding the office of the presidency to do what needs to be done to deal with the massive problems facing our country.

    The full Frederick Douglass quote: “This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fair point, but Obama allowed his movement to dissolve. He didn’t want it to push him or constrain him. And when progressives tried to act, tried to pressure him, they were dismissed as idiots by men like Rahm Emanuel.

      So: The leader does matter, especially when that leader turns his back on the movement that elected him. And the only choice for a new leader (in 2012) was Mitt Romney, and in 2016 Hillary Clinton, and in 2020 Joe Biden, the latter two chosen for us by the DNC. (Bernie Sanders never had a chance because he has principles and cares about workers.)

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Very cogent observations, Richard Bell. I guess the current depth to which our country has sunk is a clear indicator that a gullible public, brainwashed to believe they’re all “Middle Class” rather than exploited proletarians, is prepared to swallow damned near unlimited amounts of degradation at the hands of the self-appointed Masters. A certain element seems downright thrilled to wallow in this situation! The glaring, shining exception, of course, is Black Lives Matter and its allies, including in the Queer Community. These activists literally put their lives on the line in every demonstration they mount, and there have been fatalities.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Fear of an actual uprising by the unemployed did, indeed, make FDR push the New Deal. Many in the Establishment never forgave him for that, and your die-hard Libertarian to this day despises Roosevelt. Libertarians would have prescribed mass deaths by starvation, suicide, whatever, as “the natural order of things.” Most Americans have no understanding of what Libertarianism really stands for. But that’s beyond the scope of this post.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Mr. Bell has a well considered point, as you noted. However, Obama sold out before he was even inaugurated. He was the one who caved on single payer; once that happened, the issue was dead (and Obama made sure it never resurfaced during his tenure), over the strident objections of many on the left who demanded better than the ACA. Later, it was his decision to escalate drone attacks and other foreign violence, as you stated. No one else was authorized to choose that course. And it was Obama who declared that none of the banksters would be prosecuted. Again, his decision to make.

    Moreover, I wouldn’t say that Progressives deserted their posts after the 2008 election. Otherwise, the Occupy movement would never have arisen. The Dakota Access Pipeline protests wouldn’t have gained prominence. I’d submit that, if Progressives HAD become quiescent, and simply depended on Obama to continue their work alone, Mr. Bell would be correct. But they didn’t, and from his position in the Oval Office, Obama was free to ignore them. Or, in the case of Occupy, destroy the physical gatherings. While it’s true that he very belatedly did take the side of the Standing Rock Sioux and their supporters, his reaction was lukewarm at best.

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    1. I had my first doubts when he was OK with the retroactive immunity for telecoms that had gone along with Bush’s unconstitutional mass surveillance program. I gave him the benefit of the doubt for a long time though (not that I can do much beyond watch being a Canadian). I thought my disappointment was complete when after failing to achieve much at all he couldn’t even make an Eisenhower type farewell speech. To me that indicated that he really doesn’t seem to have any core principles or ethics of any kind.

      I still wasn’t ready for him to come out and praise Bush for “having a basic respect for the law” though. I suppose his wife saying that Bush has the same values as she does (though they have some differences on policy!) should have prepared me though.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Very interesting you would say that. I have a friend who has sworn since December 2008 that Obama was threatened, possibly his family as well. He says that, as Obama was leaving the White House after his one-on-one transition meeting with GWB, news cameras caught the picture of a man who had just been given horrifying news. My friend thinks that, during that meeting, Obama was told the facts of life by Bush, and what he heard altered the course of his Presidency—he realized that most of his plans for change would have to be abandoned if he wanted to survive his term.

      If that’s true, it explains a lot, and excuses some of the things he did or didn’t do. After all, look what happened to JFK when he tried to de-escalate in Vietnam.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. If anyone from the outgoing administration was to “lay down the law,” or explain “how things really work here” to Obama, it would of course have been jovial Dick Cheney. Dubya remained clueless for eight freaking years, let’s face it.

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      2. My guess is Obama was carefully vetted even before he became a candidate. The big money people knew what they were getting. They didn’t have to scare Obama into compliance.

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            1. Any attempt to genuinely resist the MIC simply would not be tolerated. Case in point, Dennis Kucinich. Member of the House, a Democrat, not representing “a wild-eyed fringe party.” He ran on a genuinely pro-peace platform. Bernie did NOT put this at center of his “program,” though to be sure Universal Healthcare is a tremendously important issue. The DNC shot ‘Little Dennis’ down much more quickly than they did Bernie in 2016 or this year. These are simply the facts of life (or death!) in today’s political reality.

              Liked by 2 people

    2. Or, maybe Obama simply “warmed to the job,” which is to oversee the interests of the 1% of the 1% (and if that entails surveillance of US citizens, no prob!) and continue the effort for US to militarily dominate the whole world! Obama’s time in office left me with very little to admire about the man.

      Liked by 2 people

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