Before I boarded the London-to-Paris train this morning, I bought The Spectator, a conservative British political magazine that specializes in scintillating snark. The latest edition is quite insightful about the American election — and the cultural forces that have given rise to the most ill-qualified and contemptible candidate in living or dead memory.
One particularly pithy article, by commentator Douglas Murray, was written right after the second presidential debate, which probably explains his manifest disgust. And that was before Donald Trump insinuated that Hillary Clinton survived Debate II only with the help of performance-enhancing drugs; that was before Trump decided to herald tonight’s final debate by hosting Barack Obama’s Kenyan-born half-brother, in the apparent belief that Clinton will be unnerved at the prospect of being unmasked as a Kenyan herself.
Granted, the British have long indulged juvenilia on their own shores. As a foreign correspondent back in the day, I well remember the ’90s media frenzy over the tapped phone transcripts that featured Prince Charles fantasizing about being a tampon inside his extramarital lover. (Best opener I’ve ever written: “It now appears that the next king of England gives good phone.”) I also remember the media frenzy after a Tory member of Parliament was found dead on his kitchen table, having tied a bag around his head in order to enhance the pleasure of masturbation. I also remember when Paddy Ashdown, longtime party leader of the Liberal Democrats, was outed for sleeping with his secretary, and the papers nicknamed him Paddy Pantsdown.
It’s always a good idea to hear how others view us — especially now, while we’re struggling to weather this horrific election season. And I’m reading Murray’s article right now, as the fertile northern French flatlands slide past the window. Consider these passages about the rise of Trump:
It is the triumph of entertainment over politics. Long an American temptation, this season it has finally won through….Though people often talk about political polarization in America, they rarely mention the incentive for exacerbating it. In politics and in punditry, nuance and consensus don’t sell. Plumbing ever-lower depths most certainly does.
Though the American media pretend to abhor the politics now on show, they are its progenitor. In a competition for viewers and readers, they have spent years turning political debate into ratings chasing bun fights. Fortunes have been made along the way. But they have turned America into a country where politics has become show business for nasty people.
For the networks and media, the increasing polarization and void are desirable: a necessary part of business. The worse the better. These bosses have encouraged the transformation of politics into WWF wrestling: a fake ‘sport’ in which participants and observers seem complicit – except some poor saps mistake it for real life.
It is wholly fitting that the noisiest contender for the presidency should have come from this world. For more than a decade, as star of “The Apprentice,” Trump was on prime-time looking not just successful and tough but respected. When he began to run for the Republican nomination, it was as though “The Apprentice” got a bonus season. Each week during the primaries, Trump ‘fired’ one of his Republican rivals. The networks were thrilled by the record viewing figures and Trump regularly cited this as demonstration of his appeal. We’ll see if viewer satisfaction turns into voter satisfaction.
The public, for whom all this is being laid on, are understandably caught and conflicted. They both love it and hate it. Who could switch channels when among the guests Trump brought to the (second) debate was Juanita Broaddrick and several other women involved with Bill Clinton in the 1990s? Who could not reach for the popcorn when Trump praised their courage in front of Hillary? The cameras even swung to catch Bill’s reaction shot, for goodness sake. But it seems unarguable that in the search for ratings American democracy is losing not just its sense of reality, but the most basic of decencies…
Politics in Britain hasn’t become such an unreality TV show yet….For all its faults, the BBC helps to save us from a precise replay of America’s entertainment coup. Yet even here our resistance can be weak. It is clear that as a nation we increasingly favor the business of entertainment over the business of politics. Witness the replacement everywhere of news with ‘celebrity news’. What’s happened in Germany today? Who cares? Have you seen what’s happened to Kim Kardashian?
Responding to this trend, even respectable politicians are descending to the halfway house that is the politics of character. Where once a premium used to be placed on the quality of an argument, today things are increasingly reduced solely to a question of who is saying it. There is no habit more clearly derived from the age we live in than the presumption that your back story, rather than your ideas, is of greatest importance. It too is a habit derived from showbiz, where infinite amounts of time are spent analyzing accidents of birth and unimportant feelings, whereas in real life no one has time for such nonsense.
If we are to avoid America’s fate, it will be necessary to keep drawing a firm line between meaningful and confected debate. It will require politicians and institutions to earn trust rather than expect it. But it will also require the public to recognize the difference between being a viewer and being a voter. Because although it is true that the politicians don’t always know what is best for the public, it’s not obvious that the public does either.
Yeah yeah, I know. Who are the Brits to tell us anything, right? But no major British party has ever voted to entrust the country’s nuclear arsenal to a TV carny barker — and the length of their typical election season is one month. Think about that.
Do we really even need this final debate? Consider these stats: 61 percent of likely voters say that Clinton has the temperament to be president; only 35 percent say that about Trump. And 57 percent of likely voters say that Clinton can be trusted with nuclear weapons; only 32 percent say the same about Trump.
That’s from the latest poll sponsored by … Fox News.