To “jump the shark” is a term from the world of entertainment, used when a hit television show, desperate to maintain its ratings preeminence, turns to a ridiculous plot twist to maintain viewer interest. (For those who are wondering, the original shark-jumping incident occurred on the sitcom “Happy Days.”) Instead of renewed fandom, however, the plot twist is met with ridicule, indifference and viewer contempt.
On the one hand, to claim that Trump jumped the shark is to understate the ongoing tragedy of his time in office, one that includes caged children and now more than 100,000 dead from covid-19. On the other, jumping the shark is the most appropriate analogy to use for the (hopeful) twilight of the Trump era. Trump approaches his presidential office from the vantage point of entertainment and ratings, not of politics and beliefs. He is literally a failed businessman who played a successful one on TV.
Trump wants your eyeballs. He’ll say or do anything to get them. And like a show on the bubble, Trump wants to get renewed. He’s obsessed with winning and despises people he deems losers. He insults opponents by pointing to their less-than-stellar polling. Ratings, reelection — what’s the difference? To Trump, not much.
But now the president himself is on the losing end. As it turns out, what Charles Sykes at the Bulwark calls Trump’s “almost reptilian instinct for tapping into the Zeitgeist” might well have been a combination of good economic circumstances mixed with ghastly entertainment appeal.
The country is facing multiple simultaneous catastrophes: health, wealth and political. Trump’s response is not to buckle down and get to work — unless, of course, we call obsessive watching of Fox News and posting on Twitter “work” — but to attempt to win back fans with ever more offensive and attention-grabbing statements.
There was the decision to use tear gas to remove protesters so Trump could stage a photo op in front of a church near the White House. There was the repeated echoing of the language of anti-Semites and segregationists. And then there was the rally planned for Juneteenth, the day we mark the end of slavery in the United States, in Tulsa, the site of one of our nation’s most violent race riots against blacks. (Trump moved it back by one day after backlash. Apparently he realized that viewers weren’t pleased.)
When the economy was good, all too many people were sadly willing to overlook this sort of awfulness. But the hate speech, outrageous statements and Trumpian tendency to throw fuel on fires now repel. Trump’s poll numbers are falling, and Republican politicians are beginning, ever so slowly, to tiptoe away.
Colin Powell says he won’t vote for Trump in November. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) says she’s undecided. A number of Senate Republicans are bucking him to support a plan — offered up by Trump nemesis Elizabeth Warren, no less — to rename military bases that currently honor prominent Confederates. Jim Mattis, Trump’s former defense secretary, recently excoriated him, claiming in a letter that Trump lacks the ability to show “mature leadership.” (Mattis only noticed that now?)
Even a month ago, many worried that former vice president Joe Biden, with a minimal campaign presence due to covid-19, wouldn’t be able to take Trump on. Now, not so much. Yes, there are still several long months between now and Election Day. But for now, like viewers of a television show that has outlived its popularity, many voters are ready to see Trump canceled. And in November, it’s looking increasingly likely they will pull a lever or mail in a ballot that does just that.