Of Trump, Obama, and Brand Name Presidents

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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?

Brett Kavanaugh Should Withdraw

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The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few — or the one.

W.J. Astore

For the good of the country, Brett Kavanaugh should withdraw his name as a nominee to the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court justices are public servants.  They need to appear as unbiased and objective as possible.  Their reputations should be as unsullied as possible.  They should not be known for partisanship.  Their public temperament should be sober, serious, and balanced, while making room for empathy and compassion and humility.

Judge Kavanaugh’s reputation, fairly or unfairly, is now sullied.  A quick and limited FBI investigation will not remove the taint surrounding his name.  Based upon last Thursday’s hearing and his own testimony, Kavanaugh stood revealed as a hyper-partisan associated with a particular brand of hard-right conservatism.  Instead of sober and balanced, he came across as belligerent, angry, self-righteous, and self-pitying.  He evaded questions as he demanded answers of senators questioning him.  When he did deign to answer, his responses were often unconvincing.

Put bluntly, Kavanaugh failed to display the demeanor Americans expect of any judge, let alone a judge with a lifetime appointment to America’s highest court.

Judge Kavanaugh says he’s a fighter who will never quit.  Yet there comes a time to withdraw from a fight when that withdrawal is for the greater good of the country.

An oft-quoted line from the “Star Trek” movies is Spock’s explanation of why he sacrifices his life to save the ship.  The needs of the many, Spock says, outweigh the needs of the few — or the one.  Spock’s rule applies here.  Kavanaugh’s appointment to the court will further divide this country along partisan and gender lines.  It will be interpreted as a slap in the face to sufferers of sexual assault.  It will cause many more Americans to lose faith in the Supreme Court — this at a time when Americans already express little faith in Congress, and highly polarized opinions of the president.

The Supreme Court’s reputation is more important than any one man.  The needs of the country outweigh the needs of the few who vociferously support him, or the one.

For the reputation of the court, and for the unity of our country, Kavanaugh should withdraw.

Update (10/2/18): There appear to be only four “swing” senators: Collins, Flake, Manchin, and Murkowski.  All the other senators are reportedly voting along party lines.  I’ve been sending notes to these four “swing” senators to vote “no” on Kavanaugh.  Here is the note I sent to them this morning:

Dear Senator XXX: Why vote for Brett Kavanaugh?

It’s a serious question. A vote for him will divide the country further. It will reduce our country’s faith in the Supreme Court as a fair-minded and non-partisan institution. It will be interpreted by many as a slap in the face to women, and especially to women brave enough to come forward to share their horrific stories of sexual assault.

Why this flawed man, and no other? As a retired military officer who voted for a third-party candidate in 2016 (though I voted for Reagan in 1984), it makes no sense to me. Unless it’s all about “winning” for the Republican party, but even that makes little sense to me. Country, after all, comes before party. I learned that as a military officer.

Put country first. Please vote “no.”