A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.
If you have liberal friends, you probably know they think that President Donald Trump is one of the most terrifying politicans they've ever seen.
As a fairly liberal person myself, I get it: Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric on the campaign trail, his early executive orders, his pledge to destroy climate-friendly regulations and his nominations of hardline Republicans to his cabinet are — in my opinion — terrifying. But there is one thing nobody can deny: President Trump has Americans engaged in politics like never before.
Many of Trump's supporters believe he is such a shock to the Washington, D.C. system that reform will be imminent. Critics of Trump believe his unorthodox, "I alone can fix it" attitude is a threat to democracy. Regardless of where you stand, what is undeniable is that he entered office and turned the status quo on its head.
It isn't just that Trump has no government experience and little political etiquette; it's that he's a former reality television star, and we've already seen the way the Trump administration will do whatever it can to play up big government moves. Perhaps the best example of this attention-grabbing style is how Trump scheduled his announcement for the next Supreme Court justice during a primetime press conference, invited two "finalists" to attend, and asked candidly after announcing Neil Gorsuch — "so, was this a surprise, was it?"
While some found the staging of the announcement inappropriate, it's undeniable that it worked: people were interested, the media paid attention, hundreds of thousands of Americans tuned into livestreams of the announcement, and millions of Americans immediately began Googling Neil Gorsuch after his name was announced.
This kind of drama being brought to politics is something that has tuned Americans into what may otherwise be a rather boring topic: government. I've never seen my friends, family and colleagues as interested in what's happening in The White House as they are right now. I get Facebook messages, texts, emails and phone calls from friends every single day asking me about articles, sharing political opinions or sharing stories they came across.
There are a few reasons this attention-grabbing president could be a great thing for our country.
For one, an engaged populace means a better, truer democracy. American's approval rating for Congress is at 19 percent, President Trump's approval rating is the lowest ever for a new president and only 32 percent of Americans have a "great deal" or a "fair amount" of trust in the media. There's a reason for all this: people don't feel represented. Many of them haven't for a long time, which is why so many Americans default to not being engaged in politics at all.
In fact, that lack of engagement is seen in the numbers: only 58 percent of eligible voters showed up at the polls in 2016, and I expect that number will go up a few percentage points in 2020.
For instance, I have a Floridian roommate who is vehemently opposed to Trump, screams at his television some nights when he hears Trump speak, and didn't vote. He simply didn't think an outsider like Trump had a chance and wasn't interested in spending the time to send in an absentee ballot. Do you think he'll ever skip an election again? I certainly don't.
But that engaged populace doesn't just mean a better, truer democracy. It also means a more accountable government. In the last few weeks, senators have been inundated with constituents calling their office like never before. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski announced she'd be voting "no" on Betsy DeVos' nomination for Secretary of Education after receiving "thousands, literally thousands" of calls from her constituents in Alaska.
The day after the inauguration, the Women's March turned into one of the largest, most peaceful and well-attended protests in our nation's history. It went global, and it was covered by news organizations all over the world. Do you think politicians noticed? I certainly do.
Even in my close circle of friends, our typical conversation topics — sports, school, work, girlfriends — has been totally upended by constant conversations about Donald J. Trump.
Just look at the Super Bowl: an event usually reserved for sports fandom, halftime shows and funny commercials was overrun with political commentary. Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Airbnb and Lumber 84 all ran advertisements that defended the melting pot of America. A progressive veterans group offered unsolicited advice on how President Trump could win over America's military. Lady Gaga opened her performance by declaring "liberty and justice for all," before singing the song "Born This Way," which is an anthem for the LGBT community. Even the beginning of the game featured a surprise appearance from George H.W. Bush and Laura Bush, who were both hospitalized last week.
While Beyoncé made some waves last year, this concentrated influx of political dialogue during something as sacred as Super Bowl Sunday is pretty novel in America.
Truth is, I think it's about time.
Our country is too important, our politicians are too powerful, and our vote is too valuable for us — as a nation — to more easily name our city's quarterback than our state's governor. The political engagement that President Trump incites is not one that simply suggests opposition, partisan politics or blind support. People want to understand the issues they're arguing about and want to know the names of the people pulling the levers on political agendas they care about. The people around me are consuming more news about politics than they ever have before.
That desire to understand our government seems to be growing. My suspicion is if President Trump continues to operate like he's a reality television star, he'll continue to pull in more politically engaged Americans.
And that could be a good thing for all of us.
Cover photo: Hayk_Shalunts / Shutterstock, Inc.