Saturday, May 20, 2017

History's judgment and the Trump Presidency: Early thoughts with analogies to music and Chris Cornell

Yes, this will be a weird one.

Let's assume, for the purposes of this post, that Trump won't burn the planet to a cinder in a nuclear temper tantrum, nor cause the country to collapse in some economic or political catastrophe.  Just go with it, for the purposes of this post.

Chris Cornell, the lead singer for Soundgarden, died this week.  Once upon a time, I actually liked Soundgarden.  I don't listen to them anymore, and you probably could have guessed that from the kind of music I post here, but in the early 1990's, well, I am a member of Generation X, even if we don't use that term anymore.

I never liked Nirvana.  I came at things from the perspective of a guitarist, and if I could play a band's stuff without trying very hard, then they sucked.  Nirvana sucked.  Now, I don't want to just... gouge away (get it?)* at Nirvana.  This isn't about them.  Soundgarden was a good band.  Kim Thayil had a unique approach to the guitar.  It's sort of a George Harrison thing.  You don't understand that it isn't easy to do unless you play guitar, and it was conceptually interesting.  So, yes, I liked Soundgarden.

And, musical critics continue to be kind to Soundgarden in retrospect.  Allmusic's ratings give 4.5 stars to their major label debut, Badmotorfinger, and 5 out of 5 stars to Superunknown.  I decided to listen to the latter for the first time in many years when Cornell died.  I never liked the most famous song-- "Black Hole Sun," but I can still hear what originally appealed to me about the band, even though it just isn't to my tastes anymore.

Regardless, I am not at all embarrassed to admit that I once liked Soundgarden.  My tastes have changed.  Part of that is age, and part of that is the internet, and the ability it has given me to explore music that I couldn't have found in 1991 when Badmotorfinger came out.  At least it was different from the rest of what was playing on the radio and on eMpTyV (I can't claim credit for that one-- I believe it came from either Animaniacs or Pinky & The Brain).  I doubt there are many people who are embarrassed to have been Soundgarden fans.

On the other hand, shortly before Soundgarden and the other Seattle bands made the word "alternative" a dirty word, so to speak, there was another act whose name I really don't want to type, but I must type in order to make the point of this post.  Milli Vanilli.


... feel...

... vile...

... just typing that.

Do you remember Milli Vanilli?  Synthesized dance-pop crap with lip-syncing models pretending to be the singers?  It was a big scandal in the music industry.  Some producers put together the sound behind the scenes, and found a pair of models to dance and pretend to sing so that they could sell the "music" based on videos and the stage act.  The thing is, they were "yuge."  They were stars.  And then, the "singers" were revealed to be lip-syncing fakers.  Suddenly, everyone hated Milli Vanilli.  You couldn't find a Milli Vanilli fan if you tried.  Nobody you asked had ever liked Milli Vanilli.

Me?  At the time, I was a classic-rock-and-blues-only kid.  Why?  Guitar, guitar and more guitar.  This scene hit a little too close to home for me...


When Milli Vanilli were around, shortly before Soundgarden made it big, my tastes were quite different from what they are now.  I hadn't gotten into jazz yet!  Me, not listening to jazz!  I didn't listen to country!  Some of what I liked, I would be embarrassed to admit.  I had a bit of a metal phase.  Why?  Guitar.  Notice some consistency here?

But I never liked Milli Vanilli.  Of course, nobody would ever admit to having liked Milli Vanilli.  Unlike Chris Cornell.  Whatever you think of grunge, the guy had some pipes, and he didn't lip-sync.

So, I was getting around to Donald Trump.  The judgment of history on a president can change over time.  When Gerald Ford was inaugurated, he had a 71% approval rating, according to Gallup.  That dropped pretty quickly, and pardoning Nixon probably had something to do with that.  In the immediate aftermath of his term, that action tainted the memory of his administration, but the judgment of history has been more kind to him.  His stated reason for pardoning Nixon was so that the country would simply move on rather than continue to be torn apart.  Was it the right thing to do?  We can still argue about that, but it wasn't so obviously wrong that Ford should be ranked with, say, James Buchanan, or even Herbert Hoover among disastrous presidents.  Ford's stock among historians has risen somewhat over time, even if he isn't considered one of the greats.

Eisenhower stands out as another whose legacy changed over time.  Richard Neustadt wrote, in Presidential Power, that Eisenhower was basically incompetent, but a later book by Fred Greenstein, The Hidden-Hand Presidency, argued that Eisenhower was much more politically sophisticated than Neustadt thought.  Publicly, of course, Eisenhower's memory will always be tied not just to the 1950's, but having been the guy who beat Hitler.  He's Captain Fucking America.  The real one, not the fascist one.**

Now, what about Trump?

Is he approaching Milli Vanilli territory?  This is a disastrous presidency, by any measure.  Back in March, when Trump decided to give himself an early grade, I posted this.  The biggest mark against him?  Flynn.  That was in March.  It is starting to look like Flynn may take him down entirely.  Trump is incompetent on a scale we haven't seen since James Buchanan.  The only difference is that he isn't in a similarly difficult situation.  If he were, he'd fuck it up even worse.  Why?  He's just that stupid.

So, what happens in a few years, when we look back on the flaming wreckage of the Trump Presidency?  Which hopefully is only metaphorical flaming wreckage.  He is unlikely to have had any real policy accomplishments, and instead just scandal after scandal.  Will anyone admit to having voted for him?

We ask, in the National Election Studies surveys, about past voting behavior.  In 2016, there was a gap in the surveys between how people said they would vote, and how people did vote.  I wonder how big the gap will be, in 2020, between how people said they had voted in the prior election, and the actual election results.  Will finding a 2016 Trump voter become as difficult as finding a Milli Vanilli fan after the lip-syncing thing was revealed?  I'm exaggerating, obviously, because party loyalty will prevent it from getting to that level of extremity, but you get the point.

And it depends on how bad this gets.  Right now, PredictIt has shares of Trump leaving office by the end of 2018 trading at 42 cents on the dollar.

Well, that was a weekend ramble...  This is for Chris.  My tastes have changed, but I have some nostalgia for his band, and hey, it gave me an idea for a post.

*Go look up the history of Nirvana and The Pixies.  I admit, I'm getting really obscure here.

**OK, I'm getting obscure again.


  1. I'm curious for your take on Audioslave vs Soundgarden.

    1. I had to look up who Audioslave was. I have no idea what they sound like.

    2. Rage Against the Machine with Chris Cornell singing.

      Was kinda curious what you thought of Tom Morello.

      My default guess for you is that you would appreciate his skill and hate the music.

    3. I can appreciate the skill of plenty of music that I dislike, but given how much music there is out there that I know I love, I don't tend to spend much time on the former. I mean, it's not like I would expect a band like that to bomb on stage...