GOP : Yankees fans :: Donald Trump : George Steinbrenner

August 27, 2022

As I write this on Saturday evening, Donald Trump has not been indicted for possessing classified materials at his home after leaving the presidency, but whether it actually happens or not, based on what is currently known, there isn’t any reasonable explanation for why he had those documents. If he weren’t the presumptive front-runner to be a major political party’s presidential nominee, he might already have been indicted.

Furthermore, the worst people are talking themselves into the position that possessing a bunch of papers with government secrets isn’t all that bad and laying the groundwork for Trump’s supporters to adopt that line, too. Given his supporters’ dedication over the years, I wouldn’t be surprised if they continue defending Trump even if it turns out he was responsible for revealing the identities of American spies overseas in addition to culling material with embarrassing information about other world leaders.

The thing about the Trump cult is that they venerate him in predictable ways. I’ve come to think of them similarly to the people who hold up George Steinbrenner as a paragon of American sports ownership, and believe the Trump fandom will follow the same arc.

Over the last 25 years, the broader culture has largely forgotten how rotten and terrible Steinbrenner was. Do you remember that he was suspended by Bowie Kuhn for two years after being convicted of illegal political campaign donations, from 1974-1976? Did you know he was banned from day-to-day operations with the Yankees for life by Fay Vincent after he paid someone to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield, who was then with the Yankees? (Later, it was reduced and he was reinstated in 1993.)

But the Yankees, aided by humongous built-in financial advantages and Steinbrenner’s extended absences that allowed management just enough stability to build quality rosters, won the World Series under his control in 1977 and 1978, then 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000. And therefore, the haranguing, the tantrums, the lives ruined, the sheer Steinbrennerian chaos that he sowed is subsumed by the championships. For many, Steinbrenner the mercurial paranoid despot has been recast as a passionate guy who was willing to do anything to win.

This flattening happens to all historical figures of note — it is the nature of collective memory that they live on in broad strokes — but apply the same effect to Trump, who shares Steinbrenner’s taste for bombast, constant self-promotion, selfishness, comfort with chaos, and also has a dedicated fandom (The Boss smh). I predict Trump’s broad image will eventually settle into that of a vulgar truth-teller, a guy who had sharp elbows, who didn’t care for the rules of polite society, and said things without regard for their propriety or others’ feelings.

This is not actually who he is. He is actually a person whose base motivation at all times is to say and do whatever is in his personal best interest, given that he defines his best interest as promoting himself as wealthy and successful, preferably on television. And that leads him to come into conflict with a culture that expects American presidents to act in the interests of their constituents and the entire nation, and to lie about those things that don’t obviously pump up his personal celebrity.

In the end, the Mar-a-Lago classified documents scandal might be the thing that busts Trump even though he went on television and effectively sparked a coup attempt in which his supporters sought to disrupt the democratic process and assassinate the vice president, but ol’ Donny Trump has proven to have a preternatural ability to wriggle out of jams.

Either way, as I contemplate the people who believe in Trump and what he stands for (racism and grievance politics, mostly, though they might say different), and try to see where all this is going, I can’t help thinking about the Steinbrenner precedent and who might be in the group of true Trump believers, the group of dead-eyed avoidant go-along-to-get-along types, or the group of unaffecteds who can’t be bothered by presidential corruption. There are too many of them.

(Photo: "George Steinbrenner Monument" by Espino Family. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.)