The Reality-TV Presidency

by Jonah Goldberg
We have been erasing the lines between celebrity culture and political culture for decades.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (especially those of you with a fetish for interspecies romance),

I used to love crossovers.

A “crossover” is what you call it when a character or characters from one story shows up in another. Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein was a personal favorite of mine as a kid. By the time I stopped collecting comic books, however, crossovers had gotten a bit ridiculous. They’d cut across the Marvel Universe like a four-year-old on a runaway John Deere, going straight through the hedges. A story would start in an X-Men title, get picked up in a Spider-Man title, then go careening into a limited series of Wolverine, before finally concluding in some new comic they were trying to promote such as Forensic Accountant Lad.

Movies and TV shows use crossovers to expand the pie of viewers. If you’re an ardent fan of one show, you’re likely to watch another show if your favorite characters show up in it. Hence such classics as Steve Urkel from Family Matters showing up on Full House or all those He-Man: Masters of the Universe crossovers with She-Ra: Princess of Power, not to mention that fantastic made-for-TV movie Hannah Montana Meets Brian Lamb.

Anyway, I got to thinking about crossovers, because I wanted to pick up where my Friday column left off. And I’ll do that, but now that I have crossovers in my head, I can’t let that go.

As with Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, I always liked the big crossovers, when two seemingly incongruous universes converge. No one cares when the universe of CSI: Miami merges with the universe of CSI: New York. That’s less of a “when worlds collide” mash-up than a plausible two-hour flight. No, I’m talking about stuff like Archie Meets the Punisher or Archie vs. Predator (yes, real things) or Wonder Pets vs. the Avengers.

But I’m losing my love for crossovers these days because it feels like we’re living in one. I’m not particularly meme-spirited, but during the election when things got so impossibly weird and I felt like I was in a Bodysnatchers remake, I got kind of caught up in this whole “Earth-2” idea — where politics kept going as it’s supposed to, according to traditional Earth-logic. John Podhoretz and I have been dabbling with the idea that maybe Y2K happened after all, but in a way that was initially invisible to us. As Alice says in that as of yet unwritten crossover with Star Trek, “We’re all through the wormhole now.”

Reality World

Well, the Donald Trump presidency is the mother of all crossovers. The primetime reality-TV universe has merged with the cable-news universe — and both sides are playing the part. This is a hugely important point, and one I think my fellow Trump-skeptics should keep in mind. Take, for instance, that cabinet meeting where everybody reportedly sucked up to the president. As Andy Ferguson notes, that’s not really what happened. Reince Priebus did the full Renfield, and so did Mike Pence, but most of the others played it fairly straight.

Don’t get me wrong: Donald Trump’s need for praise is a real thing, so much so he has to invent it or pluck it from random Twitter-feed suck ups. (Remember when he told the AP that “some people said” his address to Congress “was the single best speech ever made in that chamber”?) So, yeah, Trump acts like a reality-show character, but much of the political press is covering him like they’re reality-show producers.

I kept wanting the anchor to break away to a confession-cam interview with Mike Pence.

As I’ve talked about a bunch, the mainstream media MacGuffinized Barack Obama’s presidency, making him the hero in every storyline. With Trump, they’re covering the White House like an episode of Big Brother or MTV’s Real World. By encouraging officials to gossip and snipe about each other and the boss, they too are playing the game. Much of MSNBC’s and CNN’s coverage feels like it should be called “Desperate Housewives of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”

So, when you look at how that cabinet meeting was covered, it felt less Stalinesque and more like a creepy spinoff of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette or some sure-to-come non-gendered version (working title, “I Could Be into That”). I kept wanting the anchor to break away to a confession-cam interview with Mike Pence. If he doesn’t give me a rose but gives one to Reince, I will be like, “Oh no he didn’t!”

Meanwhile, Trump’s tweeting seems less like what it is — the panicked outbursts of narcissist with a persecution complex — and more like a premise of The Apprentice in which contestants have to deal with the boss’s rhetorical monkey wrenches. Back in the West Wing, the producers (who just finished congratulating themselves for coming up with the crossover idea of having Apprentice alumnus Dennis Rodman give Kim Jong-un a copy of The Art of the Deal) are trying to craft the best possible tweets to get Sean Spicer to pop a vein in his neck.

How We Got Here

This entire spectacle is the culmination of trends long in the making. We have been erasing the lines between celebrity culture and political culture for decades. The Democratic party long ago became a vanity project for Hollywood activists who wanted to be taken more seriously. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both exploited this relationship for their short-term political advantage, but, in the process, they also blurred and ultimately obliterated important distinctions. Movie stars — and even Muppets — testified with increasingly regularity before Congress.

The Oscars and other award shows became showcases for liberal moral preening and vacuity. Mainstream journalism got into the act. The rise of TV shout-shows and cable news generally created celebrity journalists who were only too happy to appear in films, playing themselves. In the 1990s, insipid magazines such as the short-lived George treated Washington as “Hollywood for ugly people,” as Paul Begala once put it. The White House Correspondents’ Dinner, until Trump was elected, was fast on its way to becoming just another TV show during awards season, complete with twirls on the red carpet to shouts of “who are you wearing?” The Daily Show under Jon Stewart — the most literal incarnation of “fake news” possible — won a Peabody for its “journalism” during the Bush presidency.

Binge Watching Politics

Many of my angriest Always Trump critics constantly insist that I lost all my credibility because I believed Trump couldn’t or wouldn’t win the 2016 election. This is dumb on several levels. First of all, lots of pro-Trump boosters didn’t think he could win either. Indeed, many on the Trump campaign were convinced on Election Day that he would lose. Second, there’s no transitive property here. Being wrong about one thing, doesn’t automatically mean you’re wrong about everything. If it did, Donald Trump himself would be in deep trouble, unless, that is, you actually believe he’s always right about everything. Last, it’s just factually untrue. In May of 2016, I wrote about how Trump could win — and my reasoning was not only sound, it’s very relevant to this “news”letter. I argued that, just as many liberals had made Barack Obama the hero of a story in 2008 (and throughout his presidency), many Americans had done the same thing with Trump.

I think something similar has been at the root of Trump’s success. I can’t bring myself to call him a hero, but many people see him that way. Even his critics concede that he’s entertaining. I see him as being a bit like Rodney Dangerfield, constantly complaining he doesn’t get enough respect.

Regardless, Trump bulldozed his way through the primaries in part because the nomination was his MacGuffin and people wanted to see the movie play out. Many voters, and nearly the entire press corps, got caught up in the story of Trump — much the same way the press became obsessed with the “mythic” story of Obama in 2008. People just wanted to see what happened next . . . 

This could be terrible for Clinton. She began her campaign thinking she could stage a remake of The Obama Story the way they’re remaking Ghostbusters: same plot, only this time with women. It doesn’t work that way. Fair or not, the story of Hillary Clinton: First Woman President isn’t as exciting as Barack Obama: First Black President. And, more to the point, The Hillary Story is far less entertaining than The Trump Story. Clinton is boring. She’s as fun as changing shelf paper on a Saturday afternoon. Meanwhile, who wouldn’t want to see a sequel to “Back to School” in which the Rodney Dangerfield character becomes president?

As I said during the primaries, I don’t think Democrats understand the consequences of Trump’s precedent. The GOP has a very thin bench of celebrities. Scott Baio, Ted Nugent, Nick Searcy, et al. have their charms, but they’re not Oprah, George Clooney, or Tom Hanks in terms of their cultural reach and power. If it’s true that in the Year 2000 we slipped through some dimensional portal where life became a reality show, the story is going to get a lot weirder long after the Trump Show goes into syndication.

Wars, Metaphorical and Real

As I said, I didn’t plan to write about any of this. What I wanted to do was pick up a point from my Friday column. I concluded the column on the Alexandria shooting thus:

For decades we’ve invested in the federal government ever-greater powers while at the same time raising the expectations for what government can do even higher. The rhetoric of the last three presidents has been wildly outlandish about what can be accomplished if we just elect the right political savior. George W. Bush insisted that “when somebody hurts, government has to move.” Barack Obama promised the total transformation of America in palpably messianic terms. Donald Trump vowed that electing him would solve all of our problems and usher in an era of never-ending greatness and winning.

When you believe — as James Hodgkinson clearly did — that all of our problems can be solved by flicking a few switches in the Oval Office, it’s a short trip to believing that those who stand in the way are willfully evil enemies bent on barring the way to salvation. That belief won’t turn everyone into a murderer, but it shouldn’t be that shocking that it would turn someone into one.

In last week’s “news”letter, I addressed my back and forth with Dennis Prager. Dennis insists that we are in a real civil war, not a metaphorical one (and as Kevin discusses today, he’s hardly alone). When I objected to Dennis’s use of the term, he defended it as literally true in a column headlined “Yes, America is in a Civil War.” But he’s trying to have it both ways. He says “No, no — it’s really a civil war,” but then defends that claim by insisting it’s a metaphorical war:

Indeed, Jonah Goldberg in National Review said as much. He denied that we are in the midst of a civil war on two grounds: One is that it is not violent, and the other is that we are fighting a “culture war,” not a civil war.

Whenever I write about the subject, I almost always note that this Second Civil War is not violent. I never thought that the word “war” must always include violence.

The word is frequently used in nonviolent contexts: the war against cancer, the war between the sexes, the war against tobacco, the Cold War, and myriad other nonviolent wars.

The war on cancer was metaphorical. The war between the sexes is metaphorical. The term “civil war” is a literal one. And in an actual war, killing is not only acceptable, it’s mandatory. Look, I get that language is flexible and I’ve no doubt used the term “war” in diversely interpretable ways. But if we call today’s hyper-polarized and tribal political and cultural conflict a “civil war,” then we have no words left for an actual civil war. More to the point, this week’s shooting demonstrates the difference.

Inherent to the idea of debate and disagreement is that ‘combatants’ aren’t enemies but opponents.

Moreover, I hate metaphorical wars and it’s odd that Dennis cites my book as evidence for his side. I can’t count how many times I’ve railed against the concept of the “moral equivalent of war.” Wars, metaphorical and literal, work on the logic that all other considerations are secondary to total victory. It assumes that we must all drop our own individual pursuits and do whatever is necessary to defeat our enemies. And while I want to “win” political battles as much as anybody, following the logic of war isn’t how you do it.

Democracy isn’t about war or even unity, it’s about debate and disagreement. Inherent to the idea of debate and disagreement is that “combatants” aren’t enemies but opponents — and the way you win is not through killing or even metaphorically “destroying” your opponents, but by persuading them or the voters that you’re right. Every day, I’m called a traitor by those who believe that we are in a civil war, because in a civil war, disagreement or even inadequate enthusiasm is deemed to be seditious undermining of the war effort. I am entirely certain that Dennis and the vast majority of people who have bought into this civil-war thing reject violence. But the arguments they make have few or no limiting principles against violence. As Kevin pointed out earlier this week, contrary to conventional wisdom, the serious Left is in fact worse in this regard than the serious Right. But I am at a loss as to why we should try to catch up.

Various & Sundry

Alas, there’s no canine update this week, as I am finishing my (working) vacation to the Outer Banks. Because of the enduring bigotry against dogkind, we were not allowed to bring our beasts to the house we’re renting. Reports from home are that the beasts miss us terribly but are having a fine time searching the Internet for dog toys.

ICYMI . . . 

Last week’s G-File

The latest Ricochet GLoP Culture podcast

If Democrats take back the House, they will try to impeach Trump.

Megyn Kelly’s gift to Alex Jones

Political violence and the growth of government

Jack Fowler’s National Review Webathon appeal for Father’s Day.

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Australian dog cut from police training gets new job

Why don’t perpetual motion machines work?

AI good for the world . . . says robot

The cat who authored a physics paper

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(The?) Orb sighted near Boston

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The G-File

By Jonah Goldberg