Several media and culture watchers have expressed amazement that the recent Republican debates were watched by more than 50 million people. I was not surprised at all, because just such an audience for just such events was predicted 30 years ago. I am also not surprised that Trump continues to get coverage in the media. He is a perfect example of the state of our culture- and more’s the pity.
In 1985, Neil Postman published his prophetic, seminal study of media and culture, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” in which he discussed the difference and effects of media’s transition from a linear format based on words, to a non-linear format based on pictures. Postman’s theory was that this change would have a profound impact on society, making it more difficult to communicate, absorb and pay attention to ideas, which depend on stringing words together in a line so that they become convincing, while at the same time making it much easier to communicate emotions, because pictures are great at that-witness the cat-playing-the-piano videos on YouTube, or the haunting eyes of Anne Frank. No thinking necessary.
So, what kind of emotions do we seek? Well, as with most organisms, we seek emotions and images that give us pleasure, not pain, and that’s why Postman predicted that we would indeed amuse ourselves to death, seek entertainment in all things, avoid thinking. The upshot is that, 30 years later, Postman’s prophecy has come true: Everything has become entertainment, everything has become show-business (to quote the subtitle of Postman’s book) – our own lives (check out Facebook and see how fascinating and fun we all are), pictures of dogs yawning and kitties sneezing on the internet (“Awwww!”), news reporting, and of course, politics.
If everything is entertainment, it was not surprising at all that the GOP debates were watched by millions of people, because many of us watched it to see what funny stuff would happen with that hilarious character, Donald Trump. And of course, he didn’t disappoint, because he is a character, much like Archie Bunker from “All in the Family”-a know-nothing blowhard, proud of his ignorance, a bully, yet somehow “wise” to how the world works. His admission in the first debate was clear, in front of 24 million people, that he gave money to Hillary Clinton, and she showed up at his wedding – political celebrity that she is – a trophy for his money. As a character in “This is Spinal Tap” once said, “Money talks, bull…. walks.”
So, Trump knows that Mexico is “sending” (notice the active verb) murderers, rapists, etc., to the U.S., because, well, he just knows. He’s successful and, as Tevye the Dairyman has told us, “When you’re rich, they think you really know.” He knows he can make Mexico pay for a wall that in his estimationwould be counter-productive to Mexico’s own agenda of sending us undesirables. Howdoes he know this? He just knows-the same way that Archie Bunker knew that the government was being taking over by “Porto Ricans,” women, and guys with long hair and limp handshakes. You could almost see Trump struggling to keep his inner Bunker quiet in his confrontation with Megyn Kelly during that first debate-he might have said, in his brutal way, “Megyn, stifle yourself.”
In a way, Trump is a truth-teller. He has indeed “touched a nerve.” He taps into the inchoate, powerless and semi-anesthetized anger (it’s not rage…yet) of middle- and lower-class people who know they are being screwed by rich people and their minions the politicians, and that this unholy alliance is barely discussed in the establishment media. In that sense, he has a lot in common with the Occupy Movement and, of course, the Tea Party.
Trump is, of course, a superb entertainer. His later riff on Anthony Weiner was a wonder of comic timing, rivaling the work of Jackie Mason. His mean-spiritedness was on full display when he opined,”Look at that face, would you vote for that face?” regarding candidate Carly Fiorina, and put down Rand Paul for even deigning to be on the same platform with him during the second debate. Is that not Don Rickles on display?
Why do we watch? Some of us watch to get an idea of what people in the public eye think. Some of us watch because we want to feel superior to the poor, rich sap, the same way we felt superior to Archie. Others of us watch, just as Postman predicted, because we know that Trump is entertaining, lotsalaffs, that Trump is going to make a spectacle of himself. And to paraphrase Chris Hedges’ post-Postman book title “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle,” he certainly does.
It does no good to criticize him in traditional political terms, for he is not a politician at all. He is an entertainer and he is the embodiment of Postman’s dire prediction.