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Columnists

Likability Trumps Trump, Then Delegitimizes His Presidency

Gerard Baker, a former editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal, wrote an exquisite piece in the June 8 edition titled America’s Covid Groupthink Functioned Like China’s Repression. If you can track it down online – it was published on the Journal’s website the previous day, June 7) – it’s worth the hunt.

As I see it, Baker’s observations pack considerably more intellectual heft than pieces written by his op-ed counterparts, including the Paul Krugmans, Ruth Marcuses, David Brookses, Maureen Dowds, and Dana Millbanks of the world, and his June 8 column is no exception.

In comparing China’s and the U.S.’ respective suppressions of the theory that the coronavirus originated in a Wuhan lab, Baker writes that “China’s officials may well be culpable of a combination of incompetence, recklessness, and deceit. But in an authoritarian regime, they might not have had much individual agency in the matter. In this country, scientists, bureaucrats, journalists, and executives of Big Tech companies suppressed the story not out of fear of imprisonment or death, but of their own volition, out of ideological or even venal motives. You may well ask: whose culpability is greater? … It’s not simply that the lab-leak theory was ‘debunked,’ as news organizations repeatedly told us when anyone tried to raise it a year ago. It wasn’t even permitted to be considered. Discussion of the topic was deliberately extinguished on tech platforms, in the respectable scientific journals and in newsrooms.”

Baker also points out that “the largest responsibility for the failure to consider in a timely fashion the lab-leak theory lies with the media. Journalists were once marked by their curiosity. Now the only thing that’s curious about many of them is their lack of curiosity when a story doesn’t fit their priors.”

I could continue quoting from Baker’s masterful essay, but it’s his focus on one particular conclusion that prompts me to further elaborate in this space: “the obsession with debunking anything Donald Trump said (he advanced the Wuhan lab theory long ago) and the fear of being accused of racism undoubtedly colored the judgment of many whose job is to consider only the empirical evidence,” Baker writes, continuing, “we have good grounds to suspect that officials in a bureaucracy that had already undermined Donald Trump’s presidency with baseless allegations about Russian collusion seemed intent on suppressing any suggestion, however well-supported it might be, that Trump officials might be right about a critical issue of state.”

That brings us to likability, or in this case, the lack thereof. Simply put, far too many people dislike Trump, in many cases neurotically intensely, for him to endure politically, especially in today’s toxic and eminently belligerent climate. In terms of far-reaching affability, Trump is not Reagan or Ike – heck, he’s not even JFK or Bill Clinton – and he probably never will be. But the difference between Trump and his 2016 main presidential rival, Hillary Clinton, is that while she was every bit as abominated by just as many people, she was never delegitimized. Trump, in alarming contrast, was treated by far too many Americans as the crazy uncle living in the attic who’s kept hidden when company arrives. It’s hardly a stretch to fathom that, had a significant world power declared war on the United States during Trump’s presidency, tens of millions of Americans would have thought about their commander-in-chief: “ok, let’s get the crazy guy out of the way so he doesn’t make the situation worse and let’s get the adults in the room to solve this problem.” Essentially, that’s what they thought of Trump during COVID’s peak last year.

Very few, if any, of us are blessed enough to like everyone we meet; it’s just not humanly probable. Some people simply rub us the wrong way: we don’t like something about their personalities, senses of humor, voices, hairstyles, or mannerisms. I’m no psychologist, but this has to do with voting behavior, which I’ve analyzed for decades, and I maintain it’s where it all begins. Why else would, say, the same people who make such a big deal about Trump’s infidelity idolize Presidents Kennedy and Clinton, whose womanizing far surpassed even Trump’s during his playboy heyday? Far too often, people are hesitant to admit their shallowness. In Trump’s case, maybe they’re put off by his unusual hair style and color, by his seemingly everpresent scowl (did anyone stop and think that maybe he just doesn’t like the way his smile looks?), or by his marginally euphonious tenor pitch?

Beyond superficial, aesthetic conclusion – which is why we think deer and rabbits are too ‘cute’ to eat but it’s okay for cows and chickens to lose their lives so we can stuff our faces, and why we call it ‘creepy when a plain-looking older man is cavorting with a much younger woman, unless the man is an Alec Baldwin or Harrison Ford type – we then proceed to personality.

Trump’s incessant bragging, embellishing, and berating (the latter often in self-defense, but who’s keeping track?) earns him scorns by the millions, and an all-too-eager motley crew of political enemies, from Democrats to Never-Trump Republicans, along with their media messenger boys, are all too eager to fuel the fire. “Hey, you know that overweight, old, rich, white guy with the awful hairdo who just moved in across the hall? Turns out he’s a nasty loudmouth too. Now, we can hate him even more!” Hence, the rationalization for condemnation eases the conscience; like saying too many chickens are bad for the environment, whereas bunnies are ecologically essential, so, buffalo wings for everyone coming up!

Whatever the causes behind Trump Derangement Syndrome, it’s downright dangerous for such a large chunk of the country to shun logical reasoning by legitimizing its leader, for the sake of indulging raw emotion. Isolate an issue from the person: Hitler was a good painter, Stalin revitalized Russia’s economy, and Mussolini made the trains run on time, although a frenzied new wave of ‘information’ insists that he really didn’t. It surfaced during Trump’s presidency, as a means to conflate the Donald and the Duce.

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