A mail carrier wearing a mask and gloves in Berkeley. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

By Steve Rodriguez

According to President Donald Trump, the results of our upcoming presidential election run the risk of being thrown into doubt due to an upsurge in mail-in voting.  Though it seems unlikely, if he can indeed sow enough distrust regarding the U.S. Postal Service’s ability to handle millions of mail-in ballots, our country may end up in an unwarranted constitutional crisis. And what’s really disturbing is that the success of such a threat might depend on the comic reputations of two memorable TV characters.

In the coming months the Postal Service will assume the awesome responsibility of ensuring a fair election as citizens opt to rely on mailing in their ballots for the Nov. 3 general election. Under normal circumstances, we would not give a second thought to placing our trust in the hands of the Postal Service. After all, we are talking about one of our country’s most venerable institutions.

But these are not normal times—the President of the United States himself is calling into question the capabilities of our mail delivery system. Trump continues to warn that relying on an inefficient Postal Service to deliver a larger-than-usual number of mail-in ballots will somehow result in a rigged election. His hope is to succeed in casting doubt on the Post Office, and in the process, cast doubt on the results of the November election in the event he loses.

What makes him think he can get away with making such an outrageous proposition? And why would some Americans be seen as potentially supporting his claim, while being so willing to dispose of their faith in this time-tested organization? I contend the blame lies with two fictitious TV characters — Cliff Clavin and Newman. Fans of two classic TV shows from the 80’s and 90’s—Cheers and Seinfeld—will recognize these names as belonging to a pair of memorable postal worker sitcom characters.

Unfortunately, these characters were inept oddballs who, while always appearing in their postal uniforms, came off as comically pathetic individuals. Over the years, they each reinforced the image of the Postal Service as a bloated, inefficient government organization. Clavin was a bumbling, know-it-all blowhard, described by the actor who played him—John Ratzenberg—as the kind of person “who would whistle at women but turn into a quivering mass when they’re face-to-face with a woman.” Meanwhile, Newman was a comically annoying and perpetually scheming individual who frequently antagonized the main character, Jerry Seinfeld.

Because of these two characters, a generation of adults who spent their prime-time television key demographic years (18-34 years old) watching Cheers (1982-1993) and Seinfeld (1989-1998) have been left with the impression that the Post Office is quite possibly manned by workers incapable of efficiently handling an onslaught of mail-in ballots. Thus, these audiences are now exceedingly vulnerable to Trump’s entreaties about a rigged election. It doesn’t take much to manipulate long-lasting images of Clavin and Newman in their postal uniforms, and then make warnings of a mail-in voting fiasco sound credible.

Of utmost significance is the fact that these voters are also now old enough to be in two of President Trump’s key voter demographic groups—voters 50-64 and 65+.  These two groups heavily favored Trump in the 2016 election, and he is dependent on their support to win this year. More importantly, should he lose, Trump will depend on their support to advocate for the preposterous twin ideas of a rigged election caused by postal ineptitude and a possible election do-over.

I’m confident Trump’s political strategists have figured this out, and are encouraging him to exploit the obvious television-voter demographic connection. “If you want to sow doubt in our election system,” they have surely advised him, “employing the Clavin-Newman postal gambit is a no-brainer. You don’t even have to mention their names. Just say the words ‘post office’ and these two demographic groups will know what you mean.”

Needless to say, the entertainment world deserves its share of the blame for this unfair postal worker image situation. Hollywood should have long ago made amends by producing a summer blockbuster movie starring a postal delivery person. Unfortunately, it’s now too late in the election cycle for Disney to make an animated movie (with an award-winning soundtrack that includes songs from Taylor Swift or Lin Manuel Miranda) in which a young postal worker gets tragically separated from her postal family, goes on a journey in which several obstacles are overcome, and then eventually reclaims her postal family.

Along the same lines, there is also not enough time left for popular action-movie stars like Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel to make a movie titled Fast and Furious—Pushing the Mail Envelope, full of car chases (or postal truck chases) and super-cool, hard-driving mailmen fighting international terrorists or Russian operatives.

In any event, such entertainment fare would have little effect on this particular election since the key demographic groups for these types of movies are either too young to vote or already leaning toward Joe Biden.

This still leaves my fellow older voters to worry about. As long as a significant number of Baby Boomers and Gen-X’ers associate postal workers with Clavin and Newman, President Trump possesses the capacity to rattle America’s faith in the Postal Service and democracy itself by asking “Can we really trust the results of a national election handled by these two losers?”

My fellow voters of the older persuasion need to wise up. It’s time we got real. I know it’s asking a lot. Americans enjoy their favorite TV characters. We are conditioned to believe in them. For example, I grew up assuming the actor Andy Griffith was just like Sheriff Andy Taylor. And even today I want to believe Ellen DeGeneres is as nice as she appears on her daytime talk show.

But there are times when we definitely need to separate fact from fiction. Now is the time to accept the realities of the Postal Service, for the last thing we need is an unwarranted constitutional crisis.

In the end, separating fact from fiction is not that hard to do. After all, many voters have already come to the realization that portraying a successful reality TV show executive is a far cry from being a successful real-life Oval Office executive.

Steve Rodriguez is a retired Marine Corps officer and high school teacher who last taught at Olympian High School in Chula Vista.

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