On the season finale of Saturday Night Live this past weekend, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson faux-announced that he would run for president in 2020, with actor Tom Hanks as his running mate. This came after an appearance on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon—a few days before his hosting of SNL—where he talked about the possibility of running for president. The idea has been making the rounds recently because of a profile in GQ, in which he was asked by the writer if he would consider ever running –– to which he answered yes.
While this is not the first time that Johnson has been floated as a candidate for the presidency, commentators like Jeremy Gordon at Spin were quick to dismiss the idea as ludicrous. I am largely in agreement with those who are unhappy with the prospect of another celebrity with no apparent insight into how the world works becoming president. But, should Johnson decide to run, there could end up being a silver lining. When government becomes more incompetent and less trusted, advocates could begin to more convincingly emphasize local solutions instead of always looking to the federal government for answers.
Donald Trump’s short tenure as president has been disastrous so far. His short attention span and lack of interest in most things related to actually governing signal an incompetence that is both embarrassing and laughable. There are reports that the National Security Council has to continually mention his names in their memos, otherwise he won’t read them thoroughly. Subsequently, NATO officials are encouraging speakers to limit remarks to two to four minutes at its upcoming meeting. The news surrounding the incidental leak of classified information to the Russian ambassador is becoming more ludicrous with each passing day.
As Trump’s presidency has been a glaring example of incompetence, trust in him as president has suffered. An April poll from Gallup finds that only 36 percent of respondents think he is honest and trustworthy and only 41 percent believe he can manage the government effectively. Forty-five percent believe he keeps his promises. These numbers are all down from February, and with news of his clown-like behavior coming out almost every day, there is no reason to think these numbers will go up anytime soon.
It is impossible to say what a Dwayne Johnson presidency would look like, but it is not a stretch to say it probably would be similar to what we see today. To his credit, Johnson’s public persona isn’t sleazy––he does seem like a genuinely nice guy. But we don’t know Johnson’s views on any issue or if he has a coherent governing philosophy. We have no idea how he would pick cabinet members. Since he spends his time acting in movies, it’s probably safe to say he doesn’t have an informed opinion about North Korea or health care. For all intents and purposes, electing him would probably be another disaster.
The election of Trump shows that nothing is impossible, though. As our formal institutions of government become even more mired in incompetence, and trust in them continues to decline, certain institutions of civil and commercial society could potentially emerge to pick up where the government left off.
As the editorial board of the Washington Examiner highlighted on May 21, government can’t fix all of our problems: “you can’t replace 50 thousand parishes, 10 thousand town halls, or 100 million families with a federal program…Civil society is what America needs more of. We need less of government[.]”
Government is already pretty bad at providing the most basic services it claims as its comparative advantage––a simple visit to the post office can illustrate this. So, what happens when this is exacerbated by years of divisive agendas and uninformed policy proposals under Trump or potentially another unfit, celebrity president? People will look to find alternatives to satisfy their needs.
In Social Order of the Underworld, a study of the internal governance of prison gangs in California state penitentiaries, political economist David Skarbek shows that when formal institutions of governance fail to provide adequate security for inmates, they create their own complex, reinforcing systems of protection and commerce. Skarbek’s work is part of a larger body of literature on self-governance as it relates to institutional design, which concludes that there is “no ‘one size fits all’ institutional regime.” Similarly, economist Bruce Benson has shown that a uniform commercial law which helped to facilitate international trade emerged in the absence of a formal state enforcement apparatus. Mutual aid societies in the early 20th century were successful at providing social insurance to the poor. Civil and commercial society can step up when government isn’t around to provide.
We see examples of this in things such as GoFundMe pages for healthcare and other emergency services, or when churches provide sanctuary for immigrants who are fearful of deportation. The former is clearly not a sustainable solution, but for those who are currently being affected by bad policy decisions, it is their best short-term option.
Advocates of civil society solutions have an opportunity right now. If charismatic populists that know nothing about policy are going to become the norm in our politics, then civil society––local churches, families, co-ops, PTAs, fraternities—can step up and show that they can offer an alternative that is more responsive to their needs. This could be a chance to show that we don’t need government to solve everything for us. We can take care of ourselves.
Jerrod A. Laber is a non-profit program manager living in Northern Virginia. He is a Young Voices Advocate.