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Thinker's Notebook

The Perils of Popularity Politics

(Betcha’ can’t say that three times real fast)

I wasn’t alive when John F. Kennedy rose from War Veteran to Politician to Senator and then to President of the United States, but decades after he was assassinated my parents and elders would speak with honor and awe of the handsome Prince of Camelot and the appeal that he brought to the Office of President, a man of wit and intellect with a hero’s backstory and the smile of a movie star. He and his family were the epitome of royalty, popular in every household across this nation.

While I might not have gotten a chance to witness the Kennedys in their prime, I do remember when a young Governor from Arkansas named Bill Clinton played the alto saxophone while appearing on the “Arsenio Hall Show” in 1992. Until that moment, I didn’t know much about him. After that moment, he was the guy I hoped would win the Presidency. The public seeing this white guy playing the saxophone on the biggest, Blackest late-night show on television catapulted him “head and shoulders” above the staunch, navy-blue business suit of traditional Washington politicians. In that moment, Clinton became popular. That popularity stayed with him throughout his two-termed tenure (another tongue twister. I’m on a roll). Even after impeachment and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Bill Clinton left office with the highest approval rating of any President since World War II. In America, popularity supersedes intelligence. The captain of the football team gets more girls than the captain of the science club in every high school, in every state.

The age of the television brought with it an added layer of attention to the political arena, and in the span of three generations we went from the staunch and stuffy Calvin Coolidge to the endearing FDR, to JFK the matinee idol, and then Nixon the crook, and then Ronny the actor. And by the time Clinton was telling the nation that he did not have sexual relations with that woman, POTUS was beginning to become more of a brand, with the winner being the one that the nation liked the most, and not necessarily the one that was the best for the job.

Barack Obama was different.

He represented the best of both worlds, intellectually wound tight and a genius-level brand. He was Black. His mother was white. His father was African. He was Ivy League-educated, but his rise into politics began at the community level. A beautiful and intelligent wife. Beautiful and precocious daughters. Big business credentials. Little-guy sensibilities. The man checked every box, and even some boxes that weren’t on the checklist. He was the “Apple of Presidents,” the “Gucci of Presidents,” the kind of President whose brand recognition is synonymous with the best in society. His wife Michelle released her book, Becoming, on November 13th, and it sold two million copies in two weeks. The popularity of the Presidency had never seen the heights that Barack Obama reached.


You know, when the popularity of high-end brands like Gucci reached its heights in the 80’s and 90’s, it spurred an entire industry of counterfeits; knockoff products that look like the authentic versions but are fake.

What a great way to describe the ascension of Trump.

From afar, he seems to be fashioned like a quality businessman, supposedly manufactured in a bona fide house, but upon closer inspection he’s found to be made with inferior material and he fits like a cheap suit. One wear and the whole thing falls apart. He’s a knockoff, a counterfeit, a mock president, lowercase p. He is what happens when you really want people to think you have Gucci, so you go to Canal Street and buy the fake Gucci, hoping that no one recognizes the difference. He is a fraud that was designed and created because of the success of his predecessor, a strong, dynamic brand that made it look so easy and effortless to be superior that any two-bit half-wit thinks they can do it, too.

And here we are again, at a point where a new flock of prospectives make their impending campaign for the POTUS brand official. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Julian Castro, and more to come. Each hoping that they can create the brand recognition necessary for the American public to buy them. In Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” an emperor who loved clothes pays some swindlers to create clothes that they said was made of such fine fabric that it was invisible to anyone who was incompetent. The emperor pays these crooks, and they sit in a room acting like they are weaving fabric. The emperor sends advisers to check on the progress of the clothmaking and the advisers all return with great reviews of the clothmaking. Even though they didn’t actually see the fabric, they laud over the design because they know that if they admit to not seeing the fabric, they would be deemed incompetent and unfit. The crooks bring the emperor the invisible clothes, they dress the emperor in the clothes and the emperor walks outside. Again, everyone in the crowd has heard about this special fabric and they applaud at how wonderful the emperor looks. Finally, a young child sees the emperor, hears the applause and says simply, “But the emperor has no clothes!”

If we want to pick the right person for the job in 2020, we have to stop being like the advisers and the crowd. We have to be like that young child.

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