Every now and then, Boris Johnson stumbles stammering down a street in England looking like a toilet brush that has somehow been granted admission to a fancy private school. Cameras are trained on him because he’s the prime minister of the United Kingdom, but they were on him before. He has been, for some years now, The Politician Boris Johnson, the alter ego of the bumbling/puckish reactionary media character Boris Johnson. On his rambles, Johnson is often approached by locals who recognize him, and often they tell him, in variously heated regionalisms, to fuck off, to get to work, or both. Going places and blithely chuckling or blustering through one blistering dressing-down after another seems to be a big part of Johnson’s broader gambit. The more that politics seems like a cringe-intensive bit of mockumentary television comedy, the easier it is to countenance a main character who is so obviously clownish and out of his depth. It’s not clear, even to people who understand the goings-on of UK politics better than me, where any of this is supposed to be leading. It all just sort of staggers ahead, wincing, from one preposterous episode to the next.
This is not how we do things over here, and it has especially not been how we do things over here under President Donald Trump. Or, more precisely, the whole Flailing Television Show In Permanent Sweeps Week thing is absolutely how things have been under Trump, because television is and has long been the only thing he cares about and the sum of what he believes politics to be. But the part of it in which the country’s leader is walking around in the streets dealing with people is antithetical to the American style of politics, and not just because of broader concerns about safety or more specific concerns about Trump’s ability to walk even short distances. Seen in contrast with the UK’s outwardly similar situation—podgy rich-kid doofus with no apparent goals beyond remaining in power and on television pouting from atop the government; various real crises and deadlines ominously passing without really being addressed; a broader process that’s luridly and tumescently broken—this all looks even more strange. The United States is not the one of these two countries that has a literal queen sitting in a palace, and yet it somehow has by far the more norm-addled and pompous political culture and easily the world’s smarmiest and least useful political media.
When Trump went to Game 5 of the World Series and was booed and jeered and subjected to a personalized version of the same idiot chant that America’s sourest grandparents and most goal-oriented small-business fascists delight in doing at his rallies, the codependent relationship between our broken politics and busted media blossomed into a public display of affection. The incident itself was unremarkable and unsurprising in itself. People jeered and booed Trump because Trump is historically unpopular, and because jeering and booing have historically been popular ways of getting that message across. Even a crowd of monied sports fans and establishment D.C. mutants could not turn down the opportunity to tell one of recent history’s most repellent figures how repellent they found him.
It’s an exceedingly rare opportunity, too, because Trump is a priggish and buttery germaphobe who eschews not just the demeaning rigors of retail politics but any occasion at which he might be treated with less than absolute servility and adoration. Trump’s public appearances, basically from the first, have come in highly controlled settings and in front of the most loyal possible audiences. Of late, these have been either partisans deranged enough to wait for hours outside a mid-sized arena to hear Trump tell a 17-minute story about how he definitely had a good and many would say even great chance with Cheryl Tiegs in 1982, or members of Trump friendly organizations with names like the National Wardens Association or the American Mail Fraud Council. On Monday, as the World Series headed back to Houston, Trump flew to Chicago to talk to a bunch of police chiefs about how disgusting Chicago is, and whatever else was on his mind.
Trump, like any narcissist and every bully, has a glass jaw and rabbit ears; his self-belief really is as crushingly vast as it appears, but very fragile from one moment to the next. It was clear that Trump believed he would receive a round of grateful applause from Nationals fans, because it is all he has ever received at his public events and what he believes he deserves, but also because he believed that the news he had delivered on Sunday morning entitled him to it. After American special forces pursued and killed ISIS founder Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi, Trump treated himself to a highly digressive and predictably self-congratulatory press availability in which he said the word “oil” more often than the name of the terrorist chief his troops had just killed. With characteristic subtlety, Trump has repeatedly cast the raid as Much Bigger And Better than the one some other president did to get Osama Bin Laden.
As with most of Trump’s attempts at Presidentiality, this performance was darkly comic in the familiar overstated Trumpian style, which amounts to a series of variations upon a ruddy-cheeked 9-year-old explaining impatiently that he meant to get a large lollipop stuck in his hair and should really be given another one for being so forthright about it all. It does not and should not qualify as analysis to point out that everything Trump does is the same, and debased and overdetermined and underwrought in the same ways. He is a ridiculous man, both ignorant and incandescently stupid, and has plainly not even tried to learn the rudiments of the extremely difficult job he currently has; even the voters that love him can see this, and love him for it. Trump’s steadfast refusal to do the work that the job requires gets read, by those inclined by their politics or innate deference to rich men, as an insouciant distaste for bullshit and a bold trust in his own instincts; his dedication to telling the same stories about how he has triumphed and how he is being wronged makes sense to his partisans both because those same stories are now on their televisions all the time and because they, too, perseverate all day about what they deserve.
This isn’t analysis because there is nothing to Trump, or to his politics—no room for subtext, no broader strategy beyond whatever seat-of-the-pants pandering is most immediately apparent, nothing but the wheedling and undignified and insatiable vanity that is always right there to see. This presents a problem for people whose job it is to write or talk about politics. That job, as the elite media has come to understand and pursue it, is to decode and translate The Great Game’s secret significances, contextualize the triumphs and tribulations of its heroes, and parse its finer points of strategy. Given that Trump is always doing exactly what he appears to be doing, and for precisely the reasons you’d expect, the people in these powerful jobs have naturally found themselves glossing and restating what is already quite obvious, or straining to situate things that are obvious and stupid and embarrassing within a context—a system of essential norms and traditions, governed by civility and reasoned discourse—that plainly no longer exists. They respect the office of the presidency so much that they insist on treating it with a reverence that Donald Trump, as its occupant, plainly cannot merit.
And this was mostly what happened with the extremely obvious and easily predicted story of an unpopular president being booed lustily, in a city where he won six percent of the vote in the previous election.
As is often the case, there was a tone of disappointment and unctuous concern that ran under and throughout it all. Much of this is just how elite political media always sounds, whether because the thing that most powerful people want to do with power is use it to tell other people to shut up or because of what a letdown it is to see this particular beat, which is supposed to be so complicated and significant and dignified, revealed as something unrelentingly boorish and petty and idiotic. There’s a partisan element to it, too, but not the obvious one—were a Democratic president to receive a similar response at, say, Talladega, it’s hard to imagine the media being quite so comfortable breaking out the smarm that Trump’s booing occasioned.
“It really amazing,” Nate Silver tweeted in response to a Republican strategist who posts about politics and, when needed, weird hurricane-related misinformation under the name @ComfortablySmug, “how many Libs can’t even permit Trump to have *one good day* (nobody will remember this stuff by Tuesday) after US forces kill perhaps the world’s most wanted terrorist.”
This general tone of disambiguated disappointment was not entirely the province of media types, either. Delaware Senator Chris Coons went on CNN to talk about how regrettable it all was.
Coons’s issue was that all that booing and taunting amounted to an affront to the dignity of the office, a wholly specious concept that elite D.C. types have defended with a passion otherwise absent from the rest of their work during the years in which Trump has revealed that inherent dignity to be the purest fiction. The truth of it is that while every human being really does have an inherent and inalienable dignity, an office is just an office and the dignity that this office has is bestowed and determined by the people. By the same token, a politician is just someone who has been hired through an old and easily thwarted process to an important public-facing job.
The work that those people do in those jobs touches the lives of many millions of other people; it can elevate and honor the dignity of those people’s lives or it can deny it for reasons relating to avarice or arrogance or stupid abject cruelty. It is not rude to look straight at this, and it is not wrong to be angry when and where it fails. There really is something that every person owes to everyone else, and it is not deference. Our leaders owe us more of that than we owe them, but the crowds do owe at least one thing to the people in the owner’s boxes. When they are wrong—when they dishonor us and themselves, when they are vicious and lazy and shortsighted and demand to be celebrated for it—we should let them hear it.