When I was a teenager, my friend and I enjoyed taking a daily walk through the large cemetery in our neighborhood. The cemetery was located near the local state university and situated beneath a steep hill where luxury condos somehow coexisted next to subsidized housing for the elderly and poor. As teenage boys of the hip-hop generation tended to do, we argued about if Rakim would win a rap battle against Big Daddy Kane, lied about our sex lives, tried to figure out if we would do a dance routine at the next basement party like Kid and Play in the movie “House Party,” and generally got into mischief after reading the names on the tombstones.
When cars would speed down the hill and make the sharp turn at its base, their tires would loudly squeal. As we walked about the cemetery, I would yell out “boom” whenever I heard that cue. On one Saturday afternoon, my “boom” was met with the sound of a collision and screams. My friend and I were shocked by my uncanny timing, and what we later joked, must have been an act of telekinesis or clairvoyance. We ran to the sound of the noise and there was a car, overturned several times, and smashed beyond belief. The very young male driver failed to make the turn. He was standing nearby, thrown from the car, covered in blood and in shock at what had just happened. His female companion was sitting on the ground next to him crying.
Donald Trump’s campaign and his takeover of the Republican Party are the political equivalents of a car accident. The American corporate news media — and many among the public, on both the left and the right — are participating in an act of political rubbernecking. They are transfixed by the skid marks on the road and the broken bodies lying nearby.
Liberal schadenfreude is also compelling; the apparent implosion of the Republican Party under the boot heel of Donald Trump is transfixing.
The headlines provide ample evidence of these raw pleasures. They read, “Donald Trump is destroying the Republican Party,” “Republicans are Plotting an Intervention,” “Is Donald Trump throwing his campaign?” and that he is causing a “freak-out” by pushing the GOP to its “breaking point.”
I am transparent in my sentiments. I will not hide or conceal how I am happy that Donald Trump is causing mayhem and chaos for the Republican Party. He is a pitiable and pathetic human being. The Republican Party is the country’s largest white identity organization. I laugh and smile as the racism and bigotry that has been the name brand and driving force of conservative politics and the Republican Party since at least the end of the 1960s has summoned a monster in Donald Trump that they cannot control. The name of the iconic Japanese monster “Godzilla” or “Gojira” roughly translates into “gorilla whale” in English. This is a perfect label for Donald Trump, he who is the “gorilla whale” causing trouble for the Republican Party and movement conservatives.
Most among the chattering classes and commentariat are not so honest in their feelings about Donald Trump and the tumult he is causing the Republican Party. Some of this is a function of denial. Many of the so-called “smart people” have still not come to terms with how they so misjudged the enduring allure and appeal of Trump’s racism and bigotry in the Age of Obama. Others are still in shock about the ease with which Donald Trump jettisoned the standing norms and rules about how political campaigns and elections in contemporary American politics are supposed to be conducted. Here, one should not forget that while the Fourth Estate is supposed to be a critic and watchdog of the powerful in a democracy, they are also in bed with institutional power, enforcing its rules and norms. And there are others in the corporate news media who are complicit (if not actively in league) with Donald Trump, a man who has received at least two billion dollars in free media exposure during the 2016 presidential cycle.
Across all of those groups, there is a reluctance to admit that Donald Trump gamed and hustled them on an epic scale.
The meta game is not complicated. The American corporate news media operates within a very narrow limit of what constitutes the “approved public discourse.” Certain voices and “expert opinions” are allowed. Others are rejected as too far outside of the “mainstream.” There is an ecosystem at work which filters certain guests and viewpoints across the major networks. These guests in turn know what their assigned role is within the highly choreographed—although not often if ever explicitly stated—rules of the performance. The host moderates; “both sides” of an issue are presented; false equivalency is maintained; untruths and outright lies are allowed to go uninterrogated and exposed; the echo chamber reverberates; the commercials are then played.
The viewers are given lots of “information” but not much critical insight or real knowledge of complex events. Why? Because generalists and political insiders that the producers have access to are featured; real experts who would speak plainly and directly on the issues of the day are for the most part avoided.
This model of news coverage and presentation is utterly incapable of effectively confronting the Donald Trump phenomenon.
Donald Trump is an insider who knows these rules and decided to break them. He maintains neither a veneer of competence nor professional political acumen. Trump is a reality TV show celebrity. The “reality” in “reality TV” is itself a lie. Trump knew that he could play on emotion and his status as a “successful” celebrity to win voters. In all, he is a fantasy projection and avatar, a professional wrestling political performance artist.
Media scholar Neil Postman’s warnings about the perils of distraction, entertain, politics, and spectacle have also been shown to be prescient in terms of explaining the allure of Donald Trump. Writing at CNN, Will Bunch explains:
The amazing part is that way back in 1985 — the year Stern conquered the New York airwaves and a brash young Trump was best known for breaking apart the upstart USFL football league — one prophet predicted today’s political crisis. That prophet’s name was Neil Postman, a New York University professor and media critic. His landmark book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” predicted that schlock entertainment values would eventually strangle American democracy like a cluster of poison ivy.
Postman’s thesis was that the ominous warnings of an Orwellian future, complete with totalitarian censorship, had badly missed the mark. “Censorship, after all, is the tribute tyrants pay to an assumption that the public knows the difference between serious discourse and entertainment — and cares,” the media theorist wrote. “How delighted would all the kings, czars and fuhrers of the past and commissars of the present be to know that censorship is not a necessity when all political discourse takes the form of a jest.”
It’s unlikely that Trump has ever read “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” but his ascent would not have surprised Postman (who died in 2002).
The pollsters and statisticians are predicting that Trump will lose the election to Hillary Clinton. But of course, this hinges on how one defines “lose.” Donald Trump will likely find a way to financially profit from his political adventure, his supporters are giving him millions of dollars, his narcissism has been further expanded and fueled, and if this was all just an elaborate hustle, Trump has, in many ways, lost nothing and gained much.
But this is a bizarre political year where the normal rules have apparently been suspended. Rationality must sometimes surrender to emotion. Trump’s supporters do not care about his policy expertise or knowledge. They love Trump because he makes politics “fun” with his attacks on “political correctness,” incitements to violence, and professional wrestling style carnival barker speeches. In the era of the 24/7 cable news cycle, a public with a profoundly limited attention span–and where they receive immediate pleasure and dopamine hits from the distractions provided by their cell phones and “likes” on social media which they, in turn, use to drown out the anxieties of living in a culture of cruelty and under the neoliberal nightmare–I worry that a type of political decision-making predicated on “fun” is not an outlier.
If the American people in this moment of populist upset and rage want “fun” they will not choose the boring competence of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. Donald Trump is the most entertaining thing in American politics today. Both the corporate news media and many millions of the American people know this to be true.
As the old saying goes, the big story is not when the plane lands safely but when it crashes. As such, political rubbernecking is great sport and entertainment.
Donald Trump is exploiting this fact to the maximum.