It was hard not to come away from the first Republican debate with the disorientating feeling that you had just seen week one of “American Idol: Republican Presidential Edition.”
The similarities between the Republican pre-primary presidential campaign and a reality TV show start with the candidates. Like most performers on the reality shows that are entertainment contests, these Republicans are primarily seasoned professionals, but small-timers who most people have never heard of. Except of course, for one of reality TV’s most luminescent celebrities, Donald Trump.
Like the reality TV shows that follow the rude and often tasteless, if semi-scripted, behavior of untalented rich people who like to shop, the drama of the early Republican race has boiled down to the faux pas, insults and outrageous statements that the semi-scripted candidates make. Topping the long list of bitchy swiping at fellow candidates, Democrats and others is The Donald’s bloody simile. The vulgar allusion Trump made to Megyn Kelly menstruating and the very fact that he thought he could reduce the rationale for professional behavior to an old wives’ tale are the stuff of standard reality TV narrative, whether it’s Beverly Hills wives or Atlanta hairdressers.
Since the 1960 election of John Kennedy with fewer than 50% of the vote, the news media have gradually taken the focus of their election coverage away from issues and placed it on the same concerns that dominate celebrity news: Gotcha’s and mistakes. Personality clashes. What others think. Family life. Hobbies. Speaking style. Charisma. Skeletons in the closet. Long-time grievances and jealousies. Insulting other candidates. The latest popularity contest. In every election, ever more time and space is devoted to these “celebrity issues” and ever less time to economic, social, international and environmental issues. Moreover, since the turn of century, at the same time the media has been celebritizing our news, reality TV in all of its formats has grown to dominate broadcast and cable television.
Today’s announcement thus marks the final stage in the blurring of political news and celebrity entertainment. It is an announcement that resonates as loudly in the world of reality TV as it does in the world of politics:
Reality star Sarah Palin has endorsed reality star Donald Trump for the office of president of the United States. In return, Trump will give Palin a cabinet-level position in his administration.
The news is pure hot air—the insubstantial stuff of which the celebrity news is. Everyone knows that there is no way Trump will get nominated by the Republicans, and if he runs as an independent, there is no way he will win the election. Palin has managed to become a has-been in three professions—politics, reality TV and news-casting. Palin disappeared from the political radar, I think, because her ignorant opinions and misstatements scare off all but the small base of rightwing Christian fundamentalists who were always her primary audience. If that base mattered demographically to Trump or any other candidate, it would have led to a larger audience for Mamma Grizzly’s reality show.
What we have then is someone who is living off a long-tarnished reputation endorsing someone known to the American people primarily as a business celebrity, neither of whom will have even an iota of political influence a year from now.
Soon enough, other Republicans will gather poll strength, whereas it is likely Trump’s support among Republican voters has peaked. Eventually he will be voted off the show, but not before buffoons like Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Ben Carson and Bobby Jindal get the boot—unless, that is, the Republicans take a page from avatar of reality TV, Chuck Barris, and announce the departure of candidates from the race with the striking of a large and irritating gong.
But even after the candidates are winnowed down to two or three, celebrity concerns are sure to dominate, as every one of these candidates advocates the same ideas, with some variation from Kasich when it comes to healthcare and gay marriage and from Bush and Rubio when it comes to certain narrow aspects of the immigration challenge. They all are against the deal in Iran and want to put troops in Iraq again. They all want to make it harder for women to get an abortion and birth control and for minorities to vote. They all want to stop President Obama’s global warming initiatives. They all want to weaken unions and cut taxes even more on the wealthy. None of them really cares a hoot about helping poor people.
Treating the nominating process as if it were a reality show distracts the American public from looking carefully look at what the candidates are saying. It keeps us from realizing how bad the Republican program is for anyone who isn’t rich and privileged, because we’re too busy analyzing the gotcha’s and trying to figure out if the non-Trumpeteers will coalesce behind Bush or Cruz. In the process, each candidate becomes redefined as a celebrity brand that we can describe in a few sentences, as opposed to the pages it would take to describe their positions on important issues.
In a similar way, the bloody exchange between Megyn Kelly and Mr. Comb-over transformed Kelly from a pulchritudinous piece of Fox News window dressing, known primarily for her comments in praise of white people such as Santa Claus, into a legitimate journalist who verbally wrestled with a major political figure and held her own. Peter Zenger versus William Colby. David Frost versus Richard Nixon. Dan Rather versus George Bush. And now, Megyn Kelly versus Donald Trump.
At least that’s the hype in the previews.