Few institutions are more reliable than the commercial news media at feigning shock and outrage over a situation they are largely responsible for perpetuating. The latest case in point: the first Republican Party debates of the 2016 presidential campaign, which journalists and pundits seemed genuinely surprised to discover were dominated by the current poll leader/god’s gift to comedians/wig-wearing, ain’t-never-gonna-be-president bag of proverbial hot wind, Donald Trump. Which is funny, because no matter how dramatically they clutch their pearls–or snark as if they’re above it all–Trump is precisely the monster that they created.
Just look at the way news outlets are covering the debate. CNN described Trump as “delivering an unforgettably explosive performance.” Politico characterized his effect on the debates as “lots of fireworks, less substance,” but also breathlessly recounted his “9 craziest comments“; their writeup of the debate in general was simply titled, “Yes, it’s the Trump Show.” Even the New York Times described him in terms more befitting an entertainer than a politician, writing, “From the opening moments of the evening, when he flashed a wry grin and a mischievous victory sign at the boisterous crowd, Mr. Trump remained his irrepressible self: aggrandizing, unapologetic and cutting.” When I thought about writing this post, my first instinct was that it wouldn’t really make sense on this blog; but then I realized that, actually, it’s the other way around. People like me–overeducated, middlebrow trash-culture wallowers who dedicate an entire month to blogging about kitschy R&B from the ’80s and expend tens of thousands of words on the recorded output of Kanye West–are the only people who should be writing about this stuff. Last night’s debates weren’t politics; they were, emphatically, popular culture.
Nor are last night’s debates, or even Trump himself, the whole problem. The problem is that we are living in a political system where “politics” means campaigning, and campaigning is big-budget entertainment; where broadcasters and journalists endlessly tally up the candidates’ best zingers and worst gaffes like the sports commentators they effectively (and sometimes literally) are; where reality TV stardom has become a viable post-political and, indeed, pre-political career option for even serious candidates. In this landscape, we should not even feign surprise at the fact that a candidate like Trump would first rocket to the top of the polls and then dominate both the debates and their media coverage: Trump was made for it, and it was made for him. He is precisely the candidate our three-ring circus of a democratic system deserves.
And, maybe, in a way, he’s also the candidate our system needs. This post shouldn’t be mistaken as a call for a return to some imagined golden age of sobriety and dignity in American politics; if anything, I think we should go back to the days when campaigns were literal bare-knuckle brawls, and the threat of mob violence injected some real stakes into our political culture. I’m just tired of media-savvy people, who should (and probably, in private, do) know better, treating Trump and the rest of the ever-crowding clown car that is the 2016 Republican ticket like an aberration and not the clear and logical development that it is. If nothing else, Trump is a brilliant unintentional parody of the contemporary American political candidate; his actual campaign is orders of magnitude funnier than, say, The Campaign starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis. And his very presence–and, so far, success!–in the early race exposes the rest of the sham for what it is. It’s even, if you’ll permit me a little ironic detachment, a form of poetic justice. I disagree with him emphatically, of course, but isn’t it just a little bit glorious to see Trump shrug off accusations of misogyny from Fox News’ Megyn Kelly by effectively parroting back the same dismissive lines about “political correctness” her own network (and Kelly herself) frequently proffers?
Look: everybody knows that Donald Trump won’t be president. And frankly, even if by some dark sorcery he does win the office, our system of government largely ensures that he would be no better or worse than any other Republican executive (his State of the Union addresses would, however, be a lot funnier). Events like last night’s are just that: events, in the entertainment sense of the word. And I, for one, am going to continue to treat the ongoing presidential campaign as the entertainment event that it is, until the unlikely moment when someone steps up and does something worth taking seriously. If journalists and political experts are really so aghast at Trump’s domination of the Republican race thus far, then maybe they should do something about it, and stop presenting politics as entertainment. In the meantime, though, I think Trump is treating this grotesque charade with exactly the level of decorum it deserves.