Nascar In The Age of Trump

If there’s one sport that I would associate with our new President, it’s Nascar.

Both Nascar drivers and Donald Trump like ballcaps with printed messages.  Both Nascar and the new President like to throw in the random commercial plug here and there.  Both Nascar drivers and Donald Trump need a lot of help from their pit crews.  And both Nascar and Trump appeal to older, rural white voters.  It’s no surprise that, last year, one of the Nascar execs endorsed Trump for President.

AP NASCAR TEXAS AUTO RACING S CAR USA TXSo it seems like a counterintuitive cultural disconnect that, with Donald Trump sitting in the Oval Office, Nascar is really struggling — but that’s the case.  Ratings for Nascar broadcasts have been cut almost in half since 2005.  Racetrack owners have torn down sections of bleachers at their tracks due to declining attendance, but the remaining stands still aren’t filled.  TV executives are pushing the sport to make dramatic changes to reverse the decline.  And, according to the linked article, even with two years’ notice Nascar wasn’t able to find a new primary sponsor that was willing to pay its asking price and it therefore had to sell the sponsorship and naming rights on the cheap.

Why is Nascar on the downslope?  The article gets into a lot of inside baseball talk, but I think the reality is simple:  it’s boring to watch cars driving around a race track for hundreds of miles, no matter how garishly painted they might be and how many product stickers they might sport.  I’ve never understood Nascar’s appeal for that central reason — and the generations coming behind mine, growing up with Walkmans and cell phones and social media, apparently have even less of an attention span than I do.  When Nascar people are talking about installing wifi at the racetracks, that tells you all you need to know about the future of the sport.  People just aren’t willing to sit in the stands for hours, drinking beer and hoping for some aggressive driving on the turns and an exciting crash now and then.  Changing the rules of the races and trying to come up with nicknames that make the drivers more interesting aren’t going to change that central reality.

It would be weird if the term of President Donald Trump saw Nascar once again relegated to the status of a small, regional sport — but that may be the direction in which we’re heading.

Politics, Even On The Links

Rory McIlroy, of Ireland, is one of the best golfers in the world.  Recently he decided to tee it up in a friendly foursome that included President Donald Trump.

Apparently, that’s now forbidden.

rory-mcilroy-and-donald-trumpMcIlroy faced withering criticism on the Twitterzone from people who thought that simply playing golf with the President could be viewed as some kind of endorsement of Trump and his policies.  Our culture has grown so heated that even an amiable Irish guy, who doesn’t vote in American elections, can’t go out for 18 holes of golf with the President without facing a backlash and having people accuse him of “whoring” himself and trying to shame him.

Playing golf used to be viewed as a kind of politics-free space.  Celebrities, comedians, movie stars, and sports figures could hit the links with Presidents, Governors, Senators, and Congressmen without being accused of endorsing their political views.  But it wasn’t just American politics that weren’t transported to the golf course, either.  Gary Player was a beloved player in America and elsewhere, even though he hailed from South Africa during its apartheid era.  And golfers freely played in international competitions without people trying to ban them because their home countries enforced repressive policies or weren’t viewed as sufficiently following the prevailing political views of the day.   The golf course was a kind of sanctuary where people could just play golf.

And this was true even at the local level, where people playing in club tournaments or outings might detest the views of the people they’re paired with — but they play with them anyway, and treat them cordially and in the spirit of friendly competition.  It’s one of the great things about golf.

It’s just too bad that the concepts of tolerance and sportsmanship and getting away from the hurly-burly of the world while you’re out on the course aren’t shared by more people who apparently must view everything through a political lens, and hold everyone to rigid standards of acceptable political behavior.  When somebody can’t go out and just play golf with the President without getting ripped as a turncoat, it’s a sad statement.

Redefining “Presidential,” And Reconsidering Overreaction

In some way, Donald Trump is like the weather:  you’d like to ignore him, but you just can’t.  He’s like that blustering, loud summer thunderstorm that blows in on the day you’ve scheduled an outdoor party and requires everybody to change their plans whether they want to or not.

It’s pretty obvious, after only a few days in office, that the era of Trump is going to change how we look at our presidents, and what we consider to be “presidential” behavior.  In recent decades, we’ve become used to our presidents maintaining a certain public decorum and discretion.  Sure, there have been a few exceptions in the sexual dalliance department, but for the most part our modern presidents have tried to take the personal high road.  They leave the attacks to their minions and strive to stay above the fray.

Imacon Color ScannerNot President Trump.  He’s down there himself, throwing punches via Twitter.  His most recent activities in this regard involve lashing out at the federal district court judge that issued a temporary restraining order against Trump’s immigration executive order.  Trump referred to Judge James Robart as a “so-called judge” and said his ruling was ridiculous.  Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer immediately attacked Trump, saying his comment “shows a disdain for an independent judiciary that doesn’t always bend to his wishes and a continued lack of respect for the Constitution.”

I’ve got mixed feelings about all of this.  I personally prefer the more genteel, above-the-fray presidential model; I think it’s more fitting for a great nation that seeks to inspire others and lead by example.  I wish our President wouldn’t “tweet.”  But I also recognize that American presidents haven’t always been that way.  The behavior of presidents of the 1800s — think Andrew Jackson, for example — was a lot more bare-knuckled than what has come since.

I also think there’s danger for the Democrats in repeatedly overreacting to Trump.  If you argue that everything Trump does is the most outrageous travesty in the history of the republic (and that’s pretty much what you get from the Democrats these days) you ultimately are going to be viewed as the boy who cried wolf — which means the townspeople aren’t going to pay attention when you really want them to listen.  And in this case the reality is that, since the very early days of our country, elected politicians have been strongly criticizing judges.  Andrew Jackson famously declined to enforce a Supreme Court ruling, and Abraham Lincoln harshly lambasted the Supreme Court, and its Chief Justice, after the Dred Scott decision.  More recently, the rulings of the Warren Court became a political lightning rod during the ’60s, and President Obama saw fit to directly criticize the current Supreme Court, sitting right in front of him during a State of the Union speech, about their Citizens United ruling.

So Trump’s reference to a “so-called judge” really isn’t that big a deal when viewed in the historical context.  What’s weird about it is that it comes out in tweets — which makes it seem less presidential and, because it’s a tweet, less serious.  When Trump has these little outbursts I think if the Democrats simply shook their heads and said that what Trump is doing is “regrettable,” without acting like his every move threatens to bring down the Constitution, Trump’s Twitter act will wear thin on its own.

But they can’t help themselves right now, and neither can Trump.  So we’re going to have to ride out a few of those thunderstorms.

Our First “You’re Fired!”

Last night President Trump issued the first high-level “You’re fired!” of his new Administration.  It’s like The Apprentice all over again.

trump-scowlThe person being sacked was Sally Yates, who was serving as acting Attorney General prior to the confirmation of Trump’s selection, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions.  An Obama appointee, Yates had issued an order to lawyers in the Justice Department instructing them not to make arguments defending Trump’s executive order on refugees and immigration.  Her order to the DOJ lawyers apparently was a unilateral decision, and it clearly wasn’t coordinated with the White House.  When the President learned of it he promptly dismissed Yates through a hand-delivered letter and replaced her with another acting AG, who immediately rescinded Yates’ decree and ordered DOJ lawyers to defend Trump’s immigration order.

In a letter, Yates stated that “[m]y responsibility is to ensure that the position of the Department of Justice is not only legally defensible, but is informed by our best view of what the law is after consideration of all the facts.”  The letter noted:  “In addition, I am responsible for ensuring that the positions we take in court remain consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right,” and concluded “[a]t present, I am not convinced that the defense of the executive order is consistent with these responsibilities nor am I convinced that the executive order is lawful.”  The White House, for its part, said that Yates was sacked for “refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States.”

We’re going to be seeing a lot of this, I’m afraid.  Trump is taking actions that are making significant changes and provoking significant opposition.  Yates is of course entitled to her opinion about his immigration order — but I think her appropriate course was not to unilaterally act to thwart the order, but rather to publicly and noisily resign rather than enforce the order.  That’s the course that Attorney General Elliott Richardson took when President Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, and I think it is the right approach.

As for the President, I think he really had no choice but to fire Yates for her failure to follow the policy set by his Administration.  Trump clearly means to shake things up, and he’s going to encounter resistance in the sprawling federal bureaucracy.  If Trump hadn’t acted in the face of the first act of disobedience, he would have given a green light to the actions of other dissenters within the Executive Branch of the government and undercut his ability to make the changes he thinks voters elected him to make.

People serving in government have a right to their own views, and to act their conscience — but Presidents have a right to expect their policies to be followed and faithfully executed, unless and until other coordinate branches of government act to stop them, through court orders or new laws.  It’s how the checks and balances in our tripartite government is supposed to work.  We should all haul out our Civics textbooks — we’re going to be getting an ongoing refresher course with this new President.

Thin-Skinned

One of the most curious aspects of the first few days of the Trump Administration is the little dust-up about the size of the crowd at the new President’s inauguration.  Trump thinks the news media has intentionally underestimated the crowd to try to make him look less popular than he really is; the news media points to photos of the National Mall that indicate that the inaugural crowd was not as big as the crowd for the Women’s March the next day or the crowd for the Obama inauguration in 2009.

It’s a weird story, because no one really should care about the size of the crowd.  It’s an insignificant fact that has no lasting impact on the new President or the country.  No historian includes size of inaugural crowd as one of the factors used in ranking our Presidents from best to worst.

So why does Trump care about something that would otherwise be quickly and forever flushed down the memory hole?  I think it’s because he’s someone who’s convinced of his popularity — he just won the election, after all — and he’s a bit thin-skinned about suggestions that he’s not as popular as he thinks he is.  That’s why he’s struggling to let it go, and also keeps bringing up the claim that he would have won the overall popular vote if millions of purportedly illegal voters hadn’t cast their ballots.  Trump denies that he’s thin-skinned, of course, but the reaction to the inaugural crowd reports make it difficult to agree with his self-assessment.

I think this is one of the areas where Trump’s lack of a political career has had a real effect.  Most career politicians have gotten used to absorbing the slings and arrows of outrageous statements after a few years in the political arena.  By the time they get to the point of running for president, they’ve developed an outer coating tougher than a rhinoceros hide that allows them to slough off criticism.  But Trump hasn’t had that experience, and hasn’t developed that protective layer that allows him to ignore the slights and the barbs.

Trump presumably will develop a thick skin soon; it’s hard to imagine you could be President for long without it.  The concern for me is whether political opponents or foreign leaders will see Trump’s apparent hypersensitivity as an opportunity to be exploited:  can they goad our touchy President into taking a reckless step by playing to his pride and ego?  That’s why I’m hoping Mr. Trump stops worrying about crowd size — at least publicly — and starts to show that he’s not troubled by the little things.

The Women’s March

Today is one of those days when Facebook really serves a purpose.

Take a look at your Facebook page this morning, as I did mine.  You’ll probably see photos of some of your Facebook friends and family members out marching yesterday.  In Washington, D.C., Cleveland, San Antonio, California, and many other places across the country, women, and men, were out expressing their views, wearing their knit caps and serving notice to the new Administration that they would be watching.

womens-march-on-cleveland-8601595cb6a134a9It was an impressive display, and it makes a powerful statement about the strength of participatory democracy in our country.  When hundreds of thousands of people get off their duffs on a weekend and go out to protest, it shows they care in a way that a phone call or sending a form letter to a Senator or Representative can’t really express.  And speaking as someone who served my time working in a Congressman’s office in Washington, D.C., the politicians will take notice of this display, and think about what it means and how it should affect what they do going forward.

Regardless of our political views, we should all applaud this kind of exercise, where the ordinary people of the land see fit to act.  Our governmental system depends on people voting, of course, but it also depends on people actually paying attention — watching our elected representatives, learning about what they are doing, and holding them accountable when they err or stray.  We should all worry when the people are too bored, or apathetic, or trusting to keep track of the politicos.  Similarly, the news media doesn’t do its job when it’s too cozy with the inside-the-Beltway bigwigs and becomes a willing participant in the government’s desired messaging.

In the first days of his Administration, Donald Trump has already accomplished something important that he may well not appreciate:  he’s gotten people engaged, pro and con, in a way that simply didn’t exist before.  It’s a good thing.

About The Inaugural Address

At 11:30 today, Donald Trump will say the 35 words required by the United States Constitution — swearing on both the Bible used in Abraham  Lincoln’s inauguration and a Bible his mother gave Trump when he graduated from Sunday school in 1955 — and then, according to tradition, the new President will give an inaugural address.

I think the speech will be worth watching, or reading — not so much for what Mr. Trump says, but more for how he says it.

I think everyone would agree on one thing about Trump:  he’s not a conventional political speaker.  Most politicians employ speechwriters who draft carefully prepared remarks that are edited and polished to the nth degree and that strive to create memorable phrases that can be quoted by the press.  Trump doesn’t do that.  In the remarks I’ve seen him deliver, he doesn’t appear to follow a written speech, or even use a teleprompter.  Trump seems much more comfortable with Twitter, or with getting up to the podium with a few concepts in mind that he presents in a straightforward, conversational way, often repeating the same points several times during his remarks and mixing them in with observations about what he saw on TV last night or read in the paper that morning.

In the history of the United States, there have been a few memorable inaugural addresses and lots of totally forgettable ones — does anyone remember what Richard Nixon, for example, said in his first inaugural address? — but all of them have followed the pattern of a conventional political speech, where the newly sworn Chief Executive tries to inspire Americans with his vision for the country and present some enduring rhetoric.  Will Trump follow that pattern, or will he break from the mold in this instance as he has done so often in the past?

It’s hard to imagine Donald Trump trying to deliver the kind of lengthy, formal, scripted address that we’ve seen at other presidential inaugurations.  I’ll be interested to see if he even tries, or if he decides to go in a different direction altogether.