It is exhausting to talk about Trump. The thoughtful conservatives and libertarians among my friends and family think he is a joke. I have no one in my diverse social circles who cares to engage on Trump’s behalf. I mostly associate with people who live in a facts-based reality, so it makes sense.
But the Hydroxychloroquine debate is worth wading into. Several weeks a study funded in part by the Trump administration concluded that the drug should not be authorized for general usage in response to COVID-19, and that in some cases it increased the likelihood of death. Now Trump has disclosed that, since his valet and other West Wing employees have tested positive, he has been taking this drug.
There is currently some controversy about whether Trump’s voluntary disclosure is factual. Also, Trump claims that the so-called ‘VA study,’ described above, has false conclusions. I’m not interested in debating either of these points at the moment.
Instead, I can’t help but turn to the concept of a role model in the post-shame era of Trump. I’m reminded of the famous Charles Barkley quote from the 90’s – “I’m not a role model. Just because I can dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.” This statement, and the spitting incident which preceded it, were such a huge deal at the time. We in Philadelphia really questioned whether we could root for somebody who crossed the moral line where a lugi, ejected in anger, lands (unintentionally) on an eight-year-old girl.
I personally think Barkley was right to strike back at an expression of racism, but his choice of method was unsound precisely because of the harm that resulted. It is interesting to momentarily contemplate that harm, by the way. Certainly, the girl was not injured and the anger leading up to that moment was not directed at her, but was merely expressed in her vicinity. Should she be shielded from the emotion and excess of both that outburst as well as the racist heckling that caused it? Probably.
But I wonder what shape the “trauma” suffered by this little girl took in the mind of the NBA when Barkley was fined and suspended. What did they think his actions caused or would cause? I think that probably wasn’t a consideration. The main concern was to send a message: If Sir Charles keeps this up, he will be dramatically (and unacceptably) increasing the risks associated with violence at sporting events.
And then Barkley says he’s no role model. And this many years later, especially in light of the 2020 version of Charles Barkley, we are OK with that. Think of the endless rehab stories regarding celebrities. Magazines at the supermarket check out and daytime entertainment reporting urge us to rally around those “wrestling with their demons.” We never get stories about how these celebrities have fucked up their lives through an obsession with greed and popularity. The plebs would not want to be condemned, so we will not condemn our celebrity overlords. We will not force them to be role models.
We treat celebrities the way we want to be treated. In return they provide distraction, entertainment and charity. And it seems to be working out pretty well. The reason for this is that decisions celebrities make about their personal (if not private) lives really don’t affect us very much. Oh sure, we may get a viral meme or even a few months worth of conversation. Harry and Meghan renouncing their royalty got milked for a couple months. It was like a whole TV season. But, again, this doesn’t cause us to lose our job or need to visit a food bank or need to bury a loved one.
Politicians are a different kind of celebrity, and Trump does not understand this. I have no doubt that there is a long history of Presidents and other politicians making lots of decisions about their personal lives that interfered with the rights and lives of everyday people. The difference with Trump, of course, is that he is very bad at hiding his self interest. Further, he has conflated his self-interest with ”what is good for the country.”
The problem in this case is that Trump wants to tell everyone else what to do, while a special and unique set of rules apply only to him. That kind of narcissism really doesn’t leave any room for modeling behavior. And, more so now than ever, the general public is starting to see that’s true.