Thursday, May 23, 2019

If politics presumes to entertainment, why isn’t it more entertaining?

In any case, after the unruly 2016 campaign, the over-riding question for 2020 and beyond looms: will voters embrace the most qualified presidential candidate – or fall for a predictably hyped replay of bad theatrics?

Image Credit: Thinkstock

Is the ragged Trump Show, with a miscast apprentice as president, flailing after two years simply because the star is an unteachable, one-trick phony? Or because its desperate storyline, just past the halfway point, is already descending to tedious reruns? What worse kiss of death dooms any celebrity/reality T.V. show than the dismaying sense we’ve all seen all this before? Though Trump’s “emergency” ploy speaks to bad politics and bad optics, his latest (predictable) train wreck is daily contrasted with a slew of Democratic “pilot shows,” with lively players and ideas revving up the troops.

Does not Trump’s untenable “emergency” seem even cruder than prior, mismanaged blunders on campaign pledges? Compare the Muslim Travel Ban – repeatedly bloodied in court before squeezing through. Ditto, trashing Obamacare that cut services and yanked coverage from millions, totally at odds with his empty, demagogic pledges for cheaper, better, wider health deliverables: “I am going to take care of everybody!”

Judging by 60% voter rejection on the Wall, Trump’s manic “disruption for disruption’s sake” story line is a bust. Though obvious charades will NOT obscure endless scandals, the Trump Deflection Syndrome fools no one and trivializes ten greater emergencies: climate change, health care, income inequality, student loans, dumb tariff wars, infrastructure, opiate/drug addiction, unspeakable gun laws, endless mass shootings and DACA. Yet 2020 is already focusing insurgent millions who insist politics can regain reality-based situations, plots and characters, let alone humane, rational, majority-driven advances. Opportunities were never greater to explode what E J Dionne neatly calls the “Triviality Feedback Loop that is the Trump presidency.”

Jumping the shark, redux

How often do patently invented crises have to fail before the jig is up? Even former Trump fans, reading the (hardly invisible) handwriting on the (invisible) wall, are waking up. Why, even slow-witted Republican senators realize Trump has nothing more to sell – and his party-crushing denseness promises 2020 wipe-outs worse than 2018. At risk Republicans should dread the most damaging 2019 “collusion” headlines won’t only cover Russia but their servile linkages with a poisonous lame duck.

There was a time when the ad libbing, crowd-pleasing Trump gambit delivered novelty entertainment. Better standup comic actor than leader, Trump overcame horrendous negatives (narcissism, bankruptcies, sexual misconduct) with sneering one-liners, nervy calls for violence, a shameless, billionaire arrogance, and enough outraged paranoia to bamboozle alienated, self-pitying white folks. To them Trump seemed genuine, “telling it like it is,” even ludicrously promising to pay legal bills were they pinched for assault. Right, who’s still waiting for reimbursement from Mr. Stiff-His-Own-Vendors?

What the Trumpster brought was chin-thrusting attitude, parlaying celebrity into billions worth of free press center stage. His standup routines mocked symbolic “enemies” his fans hardly knew – phantom “criminal” immigrants or Muslim visitors wanting to visit American families. Mostly, he represented himself as the world’s greatest know-it-all (smarter than generals, better than experts, more powerful than a locomotive) without (magically) offending his estranged rubes. He turned boundless narcissism into absurd victimhood, basked in the hatred of paper-tiger “elitists,” forever demonizing the media that propelled his success. And for a season it worked, making insecure audiences feel less insecure, pandering to racial biases and cultural backwardness.

Not any more. Sure, Trump still traffics in sneering mockery, but the novelty is gone, and what humdrum repetition does is expose colossal ignorance (here on what free speech means): “Nothing funny about tired Saturday Night Live on Fake News NBC! Question is, how do the Networks get away with these total Republican hit jobs without retribution? Likewise for many other shows? Very unfair and should be looked into. This is the real Collusion!”

And all subsumed by the Biggest Lie: here’s the greatest WH deceiver ever (pushing 8000+ lies) posing as the world’s arbiter of “fake news”! How laughable the great hustler who’d alone fix everything still leans on this rally song, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” How about last week’s “peace-nik” Trump whopper, bragging (with zero confirmation) the Japanese prime minister nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize? Guess we missed resolution of those intractable conflicts and wars, let alone one peace treaty. Right, the upcoming North Korean triumph. Reconciliation with Iran? Syria? Yemen? New York? California?

The one-note entertainer morphs into classic has-been, with lines that die with exposure. Trump warns if Democrats succeed, that means taking socialism to its extreme: “we’re gonna live in Venezuela.” What about repeated Trump boasts that now prove exactly the opposite: “No one has ever done a better job as president. I deserve an A+”? Finally, consider the consciousness displayed at last week’s press conference, “You can’t impeach somebody that’s doing a great job.” Apparently, he has no clue who does the impeaching and why.

Trump allies do at times make me laugh out loud, as when Ann Coulter stumbled on the truth, “The only national emergency is that our president is an idiot.” Say what? Both funny and on target, though only a fellow idiot imagined a Trump replay government fiasco. Let’s not overlook this terrific wing nut jest: Senator Cruz’ mind-boggling solution “that secures the border and won’t cost the taxpayers one dime: Let’s build a wall, and make El Chapo pay for it.” How did smarter folks miss this slam-dunk? Who knew that convicted warlords kept illegal billions accessible to Yankee retrieval? Delusion abounds and boomerangs on itself, though hardly serious entertainment.

Democratic entertainment gap?

In any case, after the unruly 2016 campaign, the over-riding question for 2020 and beyond looms: will voters embrace the most qualified presidential candidate – or fall for a predictably hyped replay of bad theatrics? Will our elections answer to reliable, consensual reality — or unscrupulous propaganda, bereft of moral or political urgency, trafficking in make-believe? Will democratic integrity stage a return – or get battered again by a hustler’s circus spectacle geared to the lowest, know-nothing denominator?

Agreed, Trump’s novel, opening T.V. antics, brawling and belligerence were more viscerally enticing (or fear-mongering) for his backers than Hilary’s uninspiring, conventional slog – thus so many Obama voters stayed home. She not only played it safe, ignoring working-class pain, but failed as both visionary and educator. Let’s not again underestimate phony, crisis- and emotion-driven bait and switch vs. reform-driven, earnestly intelligent Democratic recitations on issues, policies, people and reality. I worry that earnestness, knowledge (especially of complexity), and commitment to real-world legislative solutions will come across, in these degraded times, as dull. We live in a time of false excitement, even faux crisis moments.

No Democrat, after all, likely competes with Trump’s third-rate T.V. celebrity/name recognition or his mic-friendly snark. But now Trump the disgraced politician has a record – so full of gruesome, self-damaging blunders he’ll be far less entertaining, the one-trick phony turned national menace. Media-savvy, well informed Democrats, especially those capable of adult responses to foul, reeking aggression, are poised to strike. The best will understand how modern, networked 24/7 media politics works – and the importance of strong messaging and tight image control across a myriad of “screen realities,” large and small. If so, success will come to skillful campaigners who inform AND empathize, engage AND educate, enlighten AND entertain. Who said our politics can’t be redeemed, even fun again – and counter cynicism far and wide?

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Robert S. Becker
For over a decade, Robert S. Becker's independent, rebel-rousing essays on politics and culture analyze overall trends, history, implications, messaging and frameworks. He has been published widely, aside from Nation of Change and RSN, with extensive credits from OpEdNews (as senior editor), Alternet, Salon, Truthdig, Smirking Chimp, Dandelion Salad, Beyond Chron, and the SF Chronicle. Educated at Rutgers College, N.J. (B.A. English) and U.C. Berkeley (Ph.D. English), Becker left university teaching (Northwestern, then U. Chicago) for business, founding SOTA Industries, a top American high end audio company he ran from '80 to '92. From '92-02, he was an anti-gravel mining activist while doing marketing, business and writing consulting. Since then, he seeks out insight, even wit in the shadows, without ideology or righteousness across the current mayhem of American politics.
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