I’ve written about the remarkable phenomenon of reality TV before, but just want to make a quick note of something here. The tweet above would have been unimaginable just a decade ago. I won’t say reality TV caused the conditions that made it possible, but one of the things that reality TV does is to totalise media culture and indeed a lowest common denominator of youth culture. What do I mean by that?
Until reality TV, talent shows exhibited a kind of care for the contestants. Judges were polite and as affirming as they could be, even if the contestants weren’t any good. Not any more. Humiliation gets people’s attention. Gets them talking the next day. Gets them tuning in to the next episode as they run their own opinion shows with their friends. In this there’s a kind of regression to the schoolyard. A sloughing off of the codes of adult decency.
There’s also a kind of democratic class bias to this. The middle class has always been a guardian of respectability. It enforced the kinds of adult norms I’m talking about. Of course stable working class culture also protected its young in the same way, but much less so the degraded cultures of the underclass represented in rap for instance.
One can also think about this as relating to distinctions between the public and private realm. In private we do all sorts of things often with irony, which would be shameful to do in public where they would be highly offensive. We often make deliberately politically incorrect statements for fun in private that we wouldn’t make in public. We may not even be registering a complaint against political correctness, just playing with the tensions in our culture between what’s appropriate in public and in private. Our own subjectivity can be expressed more freely, amongst our intimates.
And one of the most fundamental things one learns as one exits childhood, is that it’s not OK to make fun of the disabled – however discombobulated one is about them subjectively. But of course it looks like that’s what the new President of the free world did. Donald Trump’s – now President’s Trump’s – singular contribution to politics is the same as the contribution of a ‘star’ of reality TV contestant (or, as it turns out, host). It’s a window onto the subjectivity of the charismatic. And that’s pretty much the whole of The Donald’s political persona. His presence in front of us amounts to little more than an invitation to share his current state of mind and whatever psychological defence mechanisms this brings forth.
If some (was it?) 9 women have independently corroborated his own admissions to predatory behaviour towards women, then they’re all lying, all put up to it by a Democrat conspiracy. If Megyn Kelly asks him a tough question he goes from describing her in the most glowing terms to traducing her. If a news agency runs stories hostile to him, they’re purveyors of fake news. If judges have ruled that he’s acting outside the law they’re ‘so called’ judges. And if some department store isn’t helping his daughter out, well that’s unfair.
I think even in Australia we have sufficient political antibodies to tackle the worst of this at least today. But America’s system, with its powerful executive, relies on congress to exercise checks and balances. And, uniquely in the developed world, one of the two mainstream parties has pretty much taken leave of its senses. This and the related phenomenon of polarisation has transformed the American scene in the way that’s nicely, if somewhat tendentiously,1 summarised by David Frum. “As politics has become polarized, Congress has increasingly become a check only on presidents of the opposite party.”
Still, I’m hoping – I suspect somewhat against hope – that those expectations are misguided. I wouldn’t have expected this treatment of a Republican congressman for not investigating Trump, and the town hall meeting apparently reflected something more than left activism. And I wouldn’t have expected KellyAnne to get ‘counselled‘ over using her position advertise Ivanka’s line. I mean she was just being nice to a someone who was being picked on right?
- The fact is that the statement has been far truer of Republicans than Democrats ↩