Is America ready for a boring president?
Nearly two decades ago, The Onion printed one of its funniest, most-memorable headlines ever: "Marilyn Manson Now Going Door-To-Door Trying To Shock People."
"Stung by flagging album sales and Eminem's supplanting him as Middle America's worst nightmare," the satirical story began, "shock rocker Marilyn Manson has embarked on a door-to-door tour of suburbia in a desperate, last-ditch effort to shock and offend average Americans."
I thought about that story on Thursday night while watching President Trump tangle with NBC's Savannah Guthrie.
For Americans who spent the evening flipping back-and-forth between the dueling town halls featuring Trump on NBC and former Vice President Joe Biden on ABC, a contrast between the two presidential candidates was clear. Biden was, in the view of many observers, "refreshingly boring," giving expansive and wonky answers to voter questions.
The president, meanwhile, was combative as ever, railing against Guthrie as she subjected to him to a series of extraordinary questions — about white supremacy, about QAnon and other conspiracy theories — and complaining about the unfairness of it all. "Why aren't you asking Joe Biden why he doesn't condemn antifa?" Trump lamented.
"You're the president," Guthrie responded at one point, "not someone's crazy uncle."
Trump's town hall lasted an hour. Biden's was 90 minutes long. Somehow, the shorter event was far more exhausting.
Let's back up here. It is frustrating, at this late date, to be analyzing this president's style and attitude. In a better world, journalists and voters would be weighing Trump and Biden's policy proposals, trying to make decisions about which of the two would do a better job of governing this country for the next four years.
But Trumpism, to the extent it exists, doesn't really have an agenda beyond the president's self-aggrandizement. It's basically a mishmash of racism, grievances, and whatever else sticks on any given day — a pose, a politically incorrect attitude, more than any coherent set of ideas.
Trump rode that pose to the White House. Many of his supporters wanted conservative judges, or a tax cut, or a stricter approach to immigration. But more than a few voters cast their ballots for Trump for the sheer novelty of it — just because he seemed so different from all of the boring politicians who had failed to do much to improve their lives. His stream of insults — to women, to Gold Star families, to a reporter with disabilities — were part of the appeal. America got a shock jock for president, a provocateur more adept at putting on a good show than at making the trains run on time.
But as the Marilyn Manson joke suggests, provocation often has a short shelf life. Eventually, the audience — and what are Americans to Trump, if not his audience? — gets accustomed to the outrage and everybody moves on to the next big thing. Or, sometimes, just the opposite thing.
There are signs that Trump's act has grown old. The pandemic is still out of control, and the economy is pretty bad too. Leading Republicans — like Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse — are growing bolder in their criticisms of the once-untouchable president. They don't fear him quite as much as they did.
The voters seem to have gotten tired of Trump, too. His polling numbers are awful, and there are other signs his message isn't packing the punch it once did. "My group of undecided voters say that the more Trump speaks, the worse he looks," Republican pollster Frank Luntz tweeted on Thursday night.
Joe Biden didn't always acquit himself well during his town hall. (He suggested that police might try de-escalating dangerous situations by shooting suspects in the leg, which is not how de-escalation works.) But he didn't argue with anybody. He didn't have to disavow any conspiracy theories. He wasn't disrespectful. Frankly, it was kind of a relief.
So, sure, Biden might have been boring on Thursday. Refreshingly so? We'll see. But Trump? He was simply tedious. It's time to move on.
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