In the classic 1999 film, “Election,” the high school student government vote has everything: naked ambition, campaign poster shredding, ballot manipulation, infidelity and more. Reese Witherspoon plays the precocious Tracy Flick, who always raises her hand first in class and can explain the difference between “morals” and “ethics.” Matthew Broderick plays Jim McAllister, the straight-arrow three-time teacher of the year who can’t stand Tracy and induces a popular jock to run against her for student body president.
But what the gifted writer Tom Perotta likely couldn’t imagine was an election in which two unpopular candidates square off for president. That doesn’t happen in high school, even in a satirical movie.
While a lot can happen before the primaries start next year, the two leading contenders at this moment, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, are both unpopular with the American people.
According to CNN’s poll of polls in June, only 41% of Americans approve of Biden’s performance. Trump ended his presidency in 2021, days after the January 6 US Capitol riot, with an average approval rating that was even lower – 39%. In the wake of his indictment this year on federal charges of mishandling classified documents, 59% of all Americans say Trump should end his campaign.
As Harry Enten wrote last month, “This puts a lot of Americans in a position they don’t want to be in: A historically large share of them do not like either man at this point.” In a CNN poll, “A plurality (36%) viewed neither candidate favorably, while 33% had a favorable view of Trump and 32% for Biden.”
Historian Julian Zelizer wrote that “even with his mediocre approval ratings,” Biden has advantages over some of his predecessors. He “can point to a formidable legislative record. With inflation abating, he can boast about a strong economy where jobs are plentiful and prices have stabilized. Biden also benefits from the specter of another Trump presidency, which is enough to rally Democrats and scare voters who might otherwise be tempted by a challenger…”
But he argued, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s primary challenge has to concern the president. History is full of examples of presidents — Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush — who faced primaries that cost them vital support. “Many of Biden’s 2020 supporters are frustrated with the president, and any attacks Kennedy will unleash could further damage Biden and provide a foundation for Republicans to go after him in the campaign,” wrote Zelizer. It’s even possible RFK Jr. could win the New Hampshire primary if Biden’s name doesn’t appear on the ballot. The president supports stripping that state of its first-in-the-nation primary status in favor of South Carolina, the state that energized Biden’s 2020 campaign.
Trump has a sizable lead over his fellow GOP candidates but faces an unprecedented set of legal challenges stemming from his two indictments, other pending investigations and civil lawsuits. The more his MAGA base proclaims its love of the former president, the more Trump’s opponents, both inside and outside the party, have reasons to be concerned.
Take Sen. Lindsey Graham’s appearance at a Trump rally last weekend. Even though he was in his home state of South Carolina just miles away from his birthplace, the senator was roundly booed by Trump’s supporters, as Dean Obeidallah pointed out.
“I must admit it was fun to watch Graham bomb with the audience, but the roasting was another reminder of how some Trump supporters demand absolute loyalty to the former president. When Trump declared that everyone makes a ‘mistake,’ including Graham, it appeared that the mistake was not being fully loyal to Trump.”
Anticipating a victory in 2024, Trump has been talking of “bringing back” retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who was pardoned by the former president after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI. “Based on Flynn’s tight embrace of the Christian nationalist right and wild conspiracy theories, were Flynn to be brought back into a senior national security role in a possible second Trump administration, the US would be in for quite a scary ride,” wrote Peter Bergen and Erik German.
Starring in a “ReAwaken America Tour,” “Flynn is dubbed, without irony, ‘America’s general,’ and, at the event we attended in May, America’s general was the unquestionable star of the show. Standing on stage at a podium flanked by jumbotron TVs draped with red Trump flags, Flynn told the crowd — many of whom had paid hundreds of dollars for tickets for the event, not to mention the price of bedding down at the Trump resort — that there was a conspiracy to take over the world.”
“According to Flynn, this conspiracy is led by … the World Economic Forum,” Bergen and German wrote. The World Economic Forum, which is known for its annual Davos conference that attracts CEOs and world leaders, has become a lightning rod for bizarre conspiracy theories in recent years.
The Republican National Committee requires candidates who participate in its debates to take a pledge that they will support the party’s eventual nominee, who could be Trump. It’s a big mistake, wrote Geoff Duncan, a GOPer who formerly served as lieutenant governor of Georgia. A better policy would be to require that that “every GOP presidential candidate must state, without equivocation, that the 2020 election was not stolen. No more dancing around the issue with a wink and a nod about ‘concerns’ about Covid-era policies opening the door to potential fraud…”
“It’s long past time for the Republican Party to demonstrate our independence from former President Trump. His politics, personality and policy have contributed to a losing streak for the GOP that extends to the 2018 midterms. To reverse the direction of our country, we must first change the leadership of our party.”
The climactic end to the Supreme Court term continued to reverberate last week. It was only a year ago that the court’s conservative majority overturned Roe v. Wade, an unpopular move that allowed Democrats to score some big political wins and avoid a disastrous midterm election.
This year’s decisions, rejecting affirmative action in college admissions and striking down Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan, are less likely to mobilize voters, argued David Mark.
“In the runup to the 2024 elections, Democrats plan to put the Supreme Court on trial,” wrote David Mark. “The problem for Democrats, though, is that the court’s views on the higher education issues at hand are likely more in line with voters than their own. Though their political battle plan to demonize the Supreme Court has until now been largely successful, Democrats are poised to make a major miscalculation if they assume this year’s decisions will push more people against the court and therefore further into Democratic arms…”
“Consider that in the nation’s preeminent blue bastion of California, Biden romped to victory against Trump. Yet on the same ballot, voters rejected 57%-43% a measure repealing California’s 1996 ban on affirmative action.”
Free speech quandary
Overshadowed in the end-of-term rush was a Supreme Court decision “that makes it harder to hold people responsible for harassment,” wrote Kara Alaimo. “The court reversed the conviction of a man for stalking and inflicting ‘emotional distress’ on singer Coles Whalen, finding that online harassment is protected by the First Amendment unless the perpetrator disregards a ‘substantial risk that his communications would be viewed as threatening violence.’”
“While the court may claim to be defending free speech by ruling that the threats were protected by the First Amendment, the decision is likely to have the opposite effect — it will censor and silence the victims of harassment.”
“Getting the balance right between free speech and protecting people from abuse is tricky, in court and beyond.”
In theory, meat grown in a laboratory could provide a way to satisfy the protein needs of millions, if not billions, of people while avoiding the slaughter of animals. Yet journalist Alice Driver wrote that the recent decision to allow its sale is no cause for celebration.
“Cultured meat seems visionary, but the biology and economics don’t add up. Live animal cells are put in stainless steel bioreactors to grow the meat. For cultivated meat production to reach 1% of the protein market, the industry would need 88 to 176 Olympic swimming pools of fermentation capacity, according to a 2021 report on cultivated meat by McKinsey & Company. The biopharma industry has less than 10 swimming pools of capacity, the report said then…”
“Like slaughterhouses, cultured-meat labs will have to confront problems with infection,” Driver observed. “Cultured animal cells are alive and can become infected with viruses. At the scale required to mass-produce lab-grown meat, the challenges would multiply.”
Forget the anticipated cage fight between Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. The real conflict flared up this week when Zuckerberg’s Meta rolled out Threads, a Twitter rival that is designed to tap into Instagram’s already huge audience.
“Both men are good at placing shiny objects before our eyes,” wrote media critic David Zurawik. “Like politicians, they are skilled in the arts of distraction and misdirection. Take the idea of a cage fight.”
“As we direct our gaze toward that ridiculous and exhibitionist proposition, we largely ignore the much larger societal questions, like how is it that Musk — who re-tweets conspiracy theories and posts antisemitic tropes — now controls such an important cultural space, a channel that once served as a platform for foreign meddling in the 2016 election.”
“Zuckerberg’s Facebook also had a shameful role in the 2016 election, publishing disinformation produced by what we now know was a Russian troll farm.”
Ukrainian historian and writer Olesya Khromeychuk told the sad and haunting story of her friend Victoria Amelina. “On June 27, Victoria was in Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine, in a pizzeria with a group of fellow writers, when a Russian missile struck the restaurant, which was full of civilians.”
“The attack that took Victoria’s life (together with those of another 12 people, including three children), was highly praised by Colonel-General Andrei Kartapolov, the head of the Russian Duma Defense Committee. Speaking on Russian TV, he said: ‘The strike on Kramatorsk was a real beauty. I bow my head to those who planned it. Not a blow, but a song. My old military heart rejoices.’”
Victoria once declared that she wanted to found a literature festival in New York.
“In 2021, she did precisely that. The festival wasn’t in New York, US, but in a village with the same name in the Donetsk region, a place where her husband had spent his childhood. Sharp and witty, she syncopated her war stories with dry humor.”
“Her life of late was dedicated to documenting Russian war crimes,” Khromeychuk wrote. “It is her death that documents the latest crime.”
Dr. Sheikh Mohammed Al-Issa: I was the most senior Islamic leader to visit Auschwitz. Here’s what I know about peace
David A. Andelman: Whatever happened to mutually assured destruction?
Jill Filipovic: America’s birthday comes with a big worry
Lynda Lin Grigsby: What we can learn from listening to refugee stories
Heroes and superheroes
With Hollywood focused on franchises, superhero universes and sequels, there’s increasing competition to find some theme that will stand out.
For Sara Stewart, there is one outstanding effort: “Amazon Prime’s ‘I’m a Virgo,’ an Oakland, California-set satire about a 13-foot-tall Black teenager named Cootie (Jharrel Jerome), is the brainchild of director/musician/activist Boots Riley. In its premiere weekend, the series was reported to be the most popular one on the platform.”
“I feel confident saying ‘I’m a Virgo’ is also the most unique new show you’re going to find on Prime, or anywhere else, right now. There are so many big ideas splashing around in this series it’s nearly impossible to delineate them all; looming large are the visceral harms of capitalism, racism and the police state, plus the role of mainstream pop culture in enforcing complicity in all three.”
Another inspired move, wrote Holly Thomas, was the casting of Phoebe Waller-Bridge in the new Indiana Jones movie starring Harrison Ford.
“Dial of Destiny,” is supposedly Indy’s final outing. In the movie, “we meet Indy in 1969 at least 25 years past his prime, dozing through the moon landing and sick to the back teeth of his job as a college professor. He’s roused from his stupor by the arrival of his wily goddaughter Helena, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Together, they embark on a mission to retrieve the Antikythera, a time-traveling device invented by Archimedes (yes).”
“It’s a mantle-passing in every sense: From Jones to his younger relative, and from a Hollywood legend to the queen of millennial side-eye. The contrast is heightened by Waller-Bridge’s anchorage in the popular imagination as Fleabag — of which we are constantly reminded, thanks to Helena’s naked self-interest occasionally tempered by glimpses of heart.”