Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Reality TV Eats U.S. Politics

Reality TV Eats U.S. Politics

Gary Kenton
I’ve been absent from the Class Wars site for a few months.  Actually, I moved (from the Hudson River Valley to Greensboro, North Carolina).  But, as we all know, whether you are talking about garbage, the Internet, or politics, there is no such thing as “away.”  As the ancient Chinese proverb has it, wherever you go, there you are.  And no matter where you live in these United States, there is no escaping the embarrassing spectacle of the presidential campaign.

As we head into the home stretch of the political primary season, it is all too easy to see how the process, which is supposed to help citizens focus on the issues that matter, actually serves to distract us, not only from the issues that might matter to us, but from anything resembling reality. 

There are a lot of factors that have contributed to the Trump phenomenon.  The most obvious (and undeniable) analysis sees the roots of the embrace of Trump’s quasi-Fascist appeal in the dog whistle politics of fear and divisiveness pioneered by Richard Nixon, soft-pedaled by Ronald Reagan, and broadcast as gospel by Fox News.  But nothing has prepared the country for Trump nearly as much as his sideways shift from real estate mogul to reality TV star.  Previously, his “power” was largely illusory, confined to his own businesses, legal bullying tactics, and the notoriety that our culture bestows on people willing to trade their identity for a brand.  But when Trump got to The Apprentice, millions of Americans watched him hire and fire, exerting power over people’s lives.  Even if the situations were manufactured and played for dramatic effect, viewers readily identified with people whose jobs were precarious and whose fate was in the hands of an arbitrary and idiotic boss. 

What we have been witnessing over the past six months is, more than anything else, a TV show.  Even if you don’t get most of your information directly from the tube, all the candidates, their campaigns, and the sound bites they utter, are as packaged for television (and YouTube and Twitter) as a used car commercial.  The viewing public was given a choice between two very different sets of debates: the Republican debates, which resembled a Farrelly Brothers movie without the laughs, and the Democratic debates, which were mostly civil and focused, at least superficially, on actual issues.  The TV audience preferred the Republican circus, by a wide margin. 

Spurred by the ratings, the moderators and networks responded not as journalists but as their own brands, with more concern for network competition and stock prices than the public they are supposed to serve.  Doing their best to make each question as personal and mean-spirited as possible, the debates were like episodes of The Apprentice or Survivor, with the viewing public acting as a surrogate for Trump.  We are voters!   We determine winners and losers!  We decide who will survive and who will be sent back to menial tasks as governors, lobbyists, and consultants.

A kind of transference has taken place.  Millions of Americans tell themselves that they are attracted to Trump because he is an “outsider,” because he “tells it like it is,” or because he is rich and not beholden to deep-pocketed donors, but the plain fact is that he is a Mussolini-type authority figure, full of bombast and fury and venom.  An astonishingly high percentage of his supporters are ignorant, dominated by poor people who have never been willing or able to meet the requirements necessary to attain a high school diploma.  Trump isn’t the candidate of the downtrodden, but rather the dumbed-down.

Just as with the vast majority of TV advertising, Trump’s appeal is dependent on the avoidance of cognition.  He doesn’t discuss policy or ideology any more than an Apple commercial discusses the drawbacks of technology or a Geico commercial provides information about the risks of driving.  The goal of advertising is to associate products with certain values and emotions.  This can be accomplished in a 30-second TV ad because there is no reasoning involved.  It was Ronald Reagan who, when frustrated at being presented with evidence that undermined his “government is the problem” ideology, said that “facts are stupid things.”  Four decades later, Trump thrives in a post-factual political environment, eschewing the real for the reactionary.  And the audience at home is eating it up.

Actually, the reality TV that the presidential debates most closely resembles is professional wrestling, with its pseudo heroism and good guy / bad guy theatrics.  The surprising part, as my friend Richard Meltzer noted, is that the audience doesn’t seem to recognize that Trump is one of the bad guys.  Rubio did his best to wear a white hat, offering a (relatively) sane and positive alternative.  (Cruz can’t even pretend to be anything but a nasty son-of-a-bitch.)  But pro wrestling fans have always loved their bad guys, and given the choice between Rubio’s sanctimonious bible-thumping and Trump’s nose-thumbing, make-it-up-as-you-go gamesmanship, they opt for the guy with the swagger and the outrageous comb-over.  Trump is an entertainer, an honest liar.   

Not that the Democrats are asking me, but here’s my advice to Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton for the general election.  Engage with Trump as little as possible.  Let surrogates point out his errors, his hatefulness, his ignorance of history, and his lack of basic understanding of geopolitical realities.  He is a TV personality and not worthy of your attention; you are running for President of the United States, not a role in a made-for-TV movie.

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