Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the dogfight.
Soon we will slouch towards the voting polls, most of us with the shellshocked semi-catalepsy of lost souls who’ve been to Hell, seen the screaming rectum of Lucifer yodel “Fat-Bottomed Girls” into the abyss, and returned from the cancerous intestinal soup of what’s left of the cadaverous American political process. All the same, it’s a mistake to think that we have merely been traumatized by a system gone feral. Strictly speaking, we are not weary, we are not affronted. We are not confronted with bad choices or bludgeoned by politicians’ inadequacies. What we really are is over-entertained.
You may not love reality shows, but now’s the time to realize you’re living in one. We all are. We’re the studio audience, an undifferentiated, neutered chorus of off-camera hoorays and boos. We no longer know what it’s like to live in a state of non-entertainment. And the one place that’s the most obvious marker of this slide into distraction culture is politics. Campaigns have gone from public beseechments about governance to a subgenre of programming so successful that it is no longer limited to election years. It now plays out more or less continuously, all year, every year. And Election 2016: The Ratfuck Reality TV Show, costarring a genuine reality TV show host, is simply the end result of decades of primetime pump-priming.
It may have all been inevitable, thanks not only to the our new techno-buzz lives but also some 65-plus years of evolving political spin and “optics” and mega-marketing. “How did we get here?” we may ask, and yet the history is well-worn. Cultural pundits have been raising their voices and rubbing their temples about how national politics became a TV series ever since Eisenhower produced the first television ad campaign, such as it was, in 1952. (Ironically enough, opponent Adlai Stevenson followed suit, and caught shit from viewers who actually didn’t appreciate I Love Lucy being interrupted for something as, well, unentertaining as a political advertisement.)
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Of course it was John Fitzgerald Kennedy who became the first TV star/President – go back to the first JFK/Nixon debate, and you can already see the lines being drawn, the Matinee Idol versus the Shifty, Stubbled Used-Car Salesman. (Never mind the Checkers Speech; here’s the Sex Symbol!) More or less immediately thereafter, his death became the medium’s first cataclysmic You Are There moment, a show that unspooled all day, with a dramatic gravity that shrunk the nuts on everything we ever thought of as “news.” The hits kept on coming: Lyndon B. Johnson’s infamous little-flower-girl atomic-holocaust shocker. Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” mini-movie, a.k.a. the greatest Spielberg short never made, along with his continual blurring of the lines between fact and fictions leaking into public discourse – remember when he mistook a Hollywood training film for his personal liberation of Holocaust survivors? Bush I’s race-baiting Willy Horton slasher-movie-trailer. Bush II: The Sequel’s “MIssion: Accomplished.”
The merging moment of our modern era, however, might be merging Bill Clinton’s The Man From Hope mini-inspirational-biopic masterpiece: a 17-minute film from 1992 that refashions the candidate as a good ol’ boy from Hope, Arkansas who overcame a hardscrabble early life of poverty, strife and abusive stepfathers to become his constituency’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington avatar. Here was an origin story that could be easily packaged, presold and popped out in primetime chunks, part bootstraps mythology and part Bachelor contestant profile. Its director, Michael Tuckman, wouldn’t refer to the work as a documentary. “This is political media,” he was quoted as saying, “even though it was biographical and unscripted.” Every campaign comes with a narrative, but this one manufactured a white-hat persona that felt close to foolproof. A star was born.
Fast-forward to today, and there’s no attempt to be the least bit savvy about hiding the Must-See TV aspects of 2016’s campaign roots – you could call the year-and-a-half build-up So You Want to Be President, or maybe Crashing Clown Car. How about Dogfight Royale? The ratings have been, as they say, huuuge. The distinctively outrageous flavor of 2016’s campaign show had other ingredients, including the fact that it has been actually a spinoff of a much-longer-running show: Bill and Hillary 4-Eva. As pro-wonk/TV writer Lawrence O’Donnell pointed out on NPR just a few weeks ago, this particular serial has been running nationally for 25 years, and faces significant viewer fatigue. Trump, in this sense, is a supporting character who crept out of the background and took over the production – like a manic Robert Kardashian returning from the grave to out-flaunt his daughters on E!.
So far, it’s been a smash, even if we secretly don’t want to face the fact that, in addition to being an entertainment Nagasaki like we’ve never seen before, the election show is also our Viewer’s Choice, and we decide what kind of show we want it to morph into after November. Ratings aren’t great for Hillary, but given their druthers, blue-state/urban/suburban viewers want the same kind of stable network formula they’ve had for decades – comfortable and safe, like reruns of Seinfeld. On the other side of the killing field, the “uneducated” red-state voters are wanting a new kind of show altogether – something dumb and savage, not a nice, practical home-buyers reality show, perhaps, but a meth-cranked Duck Dynasty With Fighter Jets mess of a show, which does not make them feel less educated and poorer than they actually already are.
This is not the franchise, going forward, that establishment Republicans like at all, but the chickens have return-roosted all over them – the whole Trumpquake is something they should’ve foreseen, a metastasization of the programming they’ve been nursing since the second Nixon term. Today, the entertainment-ization that was meant only for us, the viewer-populace, defines the system itself. The bigger problem, we all know, is that there are no real limits on what the show can encompass. We might prefer that it remain Dogfight Royale, just a show about two crazy, antithetical, locked-horn campaigns that never end. What could be better?
But the show must necessarily change, into a single-camera drama for at least a while, and then it runs the good risk of folding in stuff that won’t get great marks on the audience surveys: wars mustered from lies, the mountains of bodies accrued therein, the laws and redistrictings and covert operations and court appointments, and the human damage done by it all, wholesale environmental catastrophe, and so on. That will be all part of the show, too.
Will we care? Enough to tune out, or demand better TV? There’s plenty to dread – perhaps most of all, that Dogfight Royale is the New Normal, and in a few years time, when the parties start casting the next season, the spinoff show will be even worse, an Iron Cage Death Match of publicized ratfucking and mid-debate haymakers and bodily-fluid insults. We know only that, being here now, we cannot go back, to, say, the relatively docile sanity of the Gore v. Bush campaign of 2000, which would be like going back to Walter Cronkite after having been weaned on one of those European news shows in which the anchorpersons are all nude. How could we choose less entertainment, after all, when that’s virtually all we know? The show is listening. It will give the people what they want.