When The President Wasn’t Also the (Ratings) King

In the Nixon Era, politics and pop culture were separate.

For the benefit of the male half of my family, I’ve sat through a few baseball games, but generally, I’m not a fan of team sports. I’m pretty much not a sports fan, period, unless we include figure skating and rhythmic gymnastics in the category. My life will not change a bit if pro-football, already under siege by legal action, disappears from the American life. I am more concerned about the direction of the country.

There is an iconic photograph of Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley shaking hands at their 1970 White House meeting. It’s called The King And The President. There’s the Leader of The Free World staring at the camera with a static grin. Next to him the King of Rock-n-Roll in his tacky wardrobe, a bit bloated and spaced out. One wants your vote, another owns your heart.

Americans used to make a distinction between politics and entertainment. The world of politics is coolheaded and calculated; entertainment is passionate, otherworldly. To wit: Elvis died of a drug overdose at the age of 42; Nixon, who was impeached four years later, of course, lived to an old age. Tricky Dick inspired suspicion , Elvis, devotion.

And surely some entertainers attempted to diverge into politics, but only Ronald Reagan successfully navigated the transition, and he was a marginal actor. Cue in to 2016, when the American electorate did a Hail Mary and voted a failed businessman and B-list celebrity Donald Trump into presidency.

Trump has an innate gift for psychodrama. His goading of the professional athletes into kneeling to protest the national anthem is the latest manifestation of it. First the athletes (some of whom, I suspect, previously meant no disrespect) felt infuriated enough to “take a knee”, next fans started burning their jerseys and putting videos of said burning online. “We stand up for the flag!”

I like traditions, and I think the nation needs civic rituals, especially now. I like the fact that we pledge allegiance to the flag, the symbol of our Republic, instead of an individual, like the queen of England. We say that our soldiers die for the flag, meaning the country. I don’t know every single ritual surrounding the flag, but I like that we have them.

I understand why people are indignant, and I sympathize. Make no mistake, however: we have become the unwitting cast of a huge, elaborate reality TV show. For Trump, the outraged NFL fans that he set in motion with a couple of well-placed tweets are like contestants on The Apprentice.

The Kremlin is delighted and contributing to the discord. The antics of a twenty-something meathead and a seventy-something clown are very much in their interest: They want the US destroyed from within the way USSR was destroyed from within. That’s why Trump has always been a Putin’s man.

It’s hard for pundits to resist commenting. It’s the kind of subject everyone has an opinion on, even me. Some predicted that Trump will come out a victor because he expressed the sentiment of a majority of Americans and majority of sports fans. Yet Trump is the guy who, on a Republican year, blew the popular vote and squeaked by in the electoral college on the strength of 100,000 ballots. He was running against the least charismatic woman in America. Never underestimate Trump’s ability to lose.

And surely, his calls to fire the protesters are producing a pushback (I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with the owners firing them, except that the President weighed in on that and it’s not his place to fire private sector employees). According to a Cato poll, 61% of Americans oppose firing of the kneeling NFL players.

The only “win” here is for TV news ratings. None of this is good for the people who manipulate variously shaped balls for living. They are all forced to take a stand one way or another, and their sentiments or lack of sentiments are sure to alienate a part of the audience. Professional sports, football especially, might just go belly up, and with them patriotism and national unity. Why should conservatives and traditionalists (or football fans) root for anything like that?

Conservatives have plenty other reasons to to keep their cool about the controversy. If Trump stands to gain from it at all, it’s because he can rely on ideology to keeps us destructed. He promised the world during his campaign. Some voters believed him, others simply went along. So far, he failed to deliver. Where is the wall? Where is the repeal? Why is he hanging out with Schumer and Pelosi?

Trump needs to be a Nixon. He is a second-rate Elvis.

We now know what happened between Elvis and Nixon at that White House meeting. Elvis proposed to spy on fellow rock stars, like the Beatles who surpassed him in popularity, and report on their drug use. He was no more trustworthy than Nixon.