We, the device-loving people, want more than just unlimited data. We want unlimited entertainment: so we can stream unlimited action; punch unlimited robots; watch unlimited romance (if you’re into that).
—Mark Wahlberg, TV advertisement for AT&T
The show goes on. Every week, and sometimes every day, Donald Trump provides a new installment in the entertainment spectacle that is his presidency.
Almost a year ago now, we all woke up on a certain morning (or stayed up far too late the night before) to find that the nation would be ruled by a bombastic huckster-wizard who will, in all probability, reign over America and hold considerable sway over the rest of the globe for four years, or eight, or (elections having been suspended for the good of the republic and the world) the next 20.
What happened? Many factors led to the election of the Boy King, but there is one I find most salient.
We grew bored.
We had become accustomed over the past decade and more to the condition that Philip Roth called Total Entertainment All the Time. While President Barack Obama was talking his elevated talk and pursuing his moderate, intelligent goals, we became devotees of the screen. We were at the movies, watching TV, on Facebook, checking Twitter, sending tweets, playing with Snapchat, binging on Netflix, toggling away at Assassin’s Creed, fooling with Angry Birds while we stood in line at the bank, listening to our tunes while we walked the street or galumphed on the elliptical. We steered around each other with bat radar, staring down at our phones. We were constantly trying to entertain ourselves, always trying to soften the blow that is life with its sickness, sorrow, and disappointments.
Obama did not deliver diversion. He was ironic, detached, and compulsively dialectical in his thinking. Obama spoke about matters of the moment as though they had occurred months in the past and it was time for retrospective contemplation.
With the election of 2016 there arose the chance that Obama would be replaced by someone worse than no fun. Hillary Rodham Clinton was anti-fun. She disliked those she saw as her inferiors and took no pains to hide it. All Hillary ever wanted to talk about was policy. And policy, even at its best, is no fun.
Yet there are (or have been) arenas of human activity that demand we pull ourselves together, abjure fun, and act like grownups. Politics was one of those arenas—religion was another and, for some, school. But as the balance between entertainment and the experiential world shifted, the arenas that stirred anxiety and made us knot our brows came to be resented.
Why can’t school be fun? Why can’t church be a little more relaxed and relaxing? Why do politics have to be so dull?
Enter Trump. Onto the scene came the future Emperor, and damn did he acquit himself well. As Neil Postman writes in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business: “Tyrants of all varieties have always known about the value of providing the masses with amusements as a means of pacifying discontent. But most of them could not even have hoped for a situation in which the masses would ignore that which does not amuse.”
Fun had bashed down one of the last of the sealed doors. Fun was on the political stage and capering away. Has anyone ever made such superb faces on screen as the Emperor-to-be? The face was ugly, scowling, expressive of the scorn the mighty reserve for the feebly small: distorted, weird, but ever changing, and fascinatingly so. During some debates the producers split the screen: On one side there was the hapless speaker, on the other the Emperor-to-be, scowling and grimacing and squinching and eye-rolling like an angry and slightly demented dad regarding a collection of disappointing sons (and for a while one hapless daughter).
Has anyone ever made such superb faces on screen as the Emperor-to-be? The face was ugly, scowling, expressive of the scorn the mighty reserve for the feebly small: distorted, weird, but ever changing, and fascinatingly so.
And he gave them nicknames and taglines! How cool! Lyin’ Ted! Little Marco! Low Energy Jeb! Carly—“Look at that Face”—Fiorina! How daring! We had a good time in an arena—the dull, dull debates—where we never had fun before. Nixon and Kennedy: dull. (All the talk about a five o’clock shadow!) Obama and McCain: dull. Obama and Romney: double dull. OK, the time Lloyd Bentsen insulted Dan Quayle with the thing about not being John Kennedy: That was cool. Still, it came and went and then matters got dull again.
But the Emperor-to-be was always looming, always ready with a zinger. And sometimes the zingers were pretty illuminating, like when he told Jeb Bush that rather than preserving and defending America, his brother George had cast us into a deplorable war that had caused thousands of American deaths in exchange for bupkis. That was righteous. The ratings were amazing. No matter that the punk-rock-star of the presidential debates had no qualifications to be president and had spent most of his existence in New York as a human punch line. Now he was delivering the goods.
Oh, you watched the debates, but of course you didn’t vote for the Emperor. Sorry, but if you watched the Republican debates, you gave him something more important than votes: your eyes. You tuned in—I did, too, and in doing so helped make the clown prince legit. If you couldn’t keep your eyes off him, you were helping to keep him on stage.
A taste for entertainment is a little like a taste for seawater when you’re dying of thirst. You suck some down and it feels good, but you’re left even more parched. So you drink some more—and more, and more. And it’s terrible for you. And eventually it will kill you. George Carlin’s words apply: Cocaine, great drug. Makes you a new man. Only one problem: new man wants more coke. Over and over again.
Didn’t it seem like Jeb Bush had been created especially for the Emperor to mock—Jeb Bush with his bland, entitled face and his paunchy body and his expression of stupefied disbelief? (“It’s my turn! It’s my turn!”) Was he ever a fine straight man! But then came phase two, and Bush seemed like a mere amuse bouche. With Hillary, the bad boy brought his act indoors, as Donny the Class Clown. One was surprised that Clown Donny never pulled the ink tube out of a Bic pen, created a pyramid of tiny spit-paper cannonballs and went ready, aim, fire while Clinton was addressing the class on the subjects of goodness and virtue. Clown Donny injected comments (“Wrong!” “False!”) when it was not his turn to talk! He butted in without even raising his hand. He was a hellion, that boy.
The good kids in the audience adored the way Hillary maintained her dignity and would not give in when this class clown got up to his tricks. She would not be deterred. But the bad kids, and it turned out that there were a lot more of them than anyone thought, loved Clown Donny’s act. They’d had it with teachers and social workers and judges and lawyers and journalists who played golf and watched soccer and drove foreign cars and who were always telling them how to talk and how to walk and what to say and what to eat and drink, so that they didn’t get fat and cost the taxpayers millions with their diabetes and their strokes and heart attacks.
Nope. They were going to laugh their expanded asses off as Donny cut up in class and made his opponent twist. Payback was finally here. Was this a fine show! For what is happiness but the chance to go back in time, to fifth grade say, and see it done the right way? Finally the most boring of all endeavors, politics, had some zip to it.
I heard a woman from Ohio say he might get us all blown up, but she was still voting for him. What the hell?
The Emperor used Twitter like a zip gun. Suddenly, everyone was talking about the tweet and had forgotten the particular piece of idiocy that Mean Donald wanted them to forget. He could change the station on you in a flash. He was on the case night and day, trying to keep us entertained, keeping us outraged and aghast and tickled and belly-laughing. I heard a woman from Ohio say he might get us all blown up, but she was still voting for him. What the hell?
Maybe the prospect of getting blown up is part of the enjoyment. Writing about Shakespeare’s Richard III, and implicitly about the Emperor-to-be, Stephen Greenblatt shrewdly remarks on how we, “the audience,” are “charmed again and again by the villain’s jaunty outrageousness, by his indifference to the ordinary norms of human decency, by the lies that seem to be effective even though no one believes them, by the seductive power of sheer ugliness. Something in us enjoys every minute of his horrible ascent to power.”
Boredom. Arthur Schopenhauer distinguishes himself in many ways as a thinker, but not least in the importance he ascribes to the state of boredom. For him, human life tends to slide between two conditions, both of them disagreeable: the first is want, the second, boredom. He writes that, “the most general survey shows us that the two main foes of human happiness are pain and boredom. We may go further and say that in the degree in which we are fortunate enough to get away from the one, we approach the other.” Schopenhauer is not willing to say that boredom is as severe and taxing as want, not quite. He understands that not to have food, shelter, clothing, a paying job, and a place at the social table can be grievous indeed. But he is alert to what happens to many (he would actually say most) human beings once their needs are slaked. At that point, they risk becoming bored.
They have time on their hands and they do not know what to do with it. They should develop their intellects; they should find interests in the world; they should cultivate themselves and their gardens. But most humans lack the capacity. Schopenhauer observed that the prosperous people of his day tried to shake off boredom by gambling, drinking, insulting one another and at the extreme end, by dueling. Death and injury was preferable to boredom, at least for many. “It’s mainly because of . . . inner vacuity of soul,” says Schopenhauer, “that people go in quest of society, diversion, amusement, luxury of every sort, which lead many to extravagance and misery.”
The critic George Steiner also takes up the subject of boredom, writing in Schopenhauer’s wake. “Madness, death,” he writes, “are preferable to the interminable Sunday and suet of a bourgeois life form.”
But in our time the individual afflicted with ennui does not always need to travel to such extremes: for us there need be neither madness nor death, for there is entertainment. The bored individual wants diversion. And the more often and more skillfully he is entertained, the more he rebels at those barren patches in which nothing distracts him from the pain of being, the pain of looking ahead (and often not too far ahead) to the triad that Gautama warned us against, old age and sickness and death.
Our entertainment addiction has robbed us of inner resources. We need someone shaking a rattle at us all the time. Was there ever a more adept rattle shaker than Donald the T.?
Everyone watches TV now, everyone. Reading still goes on, pages are turned. But even in what was once the realm of high, or at least higher culture, the currency is visual. Everyone wants to know about the new police procedural from Scandinavia, everyone has a line on the last episode of Game of Thrones.
What the newspapers tell us is true. Though much is now written, less and less is genuinely read. Reading is taxing. Editors now use a new abbreviation for trying texts: tl;dr. That is: Too long; didn’t read.
Television is immersive. It folds you in. Watching TV, you almost always know what to think, how to feel. (The accompanying music will tell you.) You can lose yourself in a TV show, dissolve your critical faculties—which is one of the blandishments of the medium. The tensions in the mind dissolve.
Journalists will have to be willing, in effect, to fight their readers for control of the media. Will they be willing to do so?
You can lose yourself in a book, too. You can succumb to a vivid continuous dream when you read. But books that call for such dissolution are entertainments. They’re TV between covers. In real reading there is a tension between the book and the reader. What exactly do those words mean? Why does this follow that? But there’s also the tension that any author with a strong vision will create in a reader who also has a developed (or developing) sense of the world. We question, rebut, concur, congratulate. A good book all but says, Talk to me. A TV show simply says, Relax, watch, dream. And be quiet. One activity is active; the other passive. The quality of television is no doubt as good as it’s ever been. But the effect of watching is no less lulling than it ever was.
The Entertainer in Chief went a long way to de-sublimate politics in America. What comes next? Will it be religion? The military? What institutions do we have that can’t be morphed into entertainment?
For some time we’ve been talking blithely about the dumbing down of America. We’ve talked about how people don’t read and barely can. We’ve talked about how consecutive thought is now too rarely detected among our contemporaries. We’ve talked about how grownups write and talk like children and how children teach grown-ups the way to live in the world. (If it feels like it might be fun, give it a try!) We’ve looked on as this has happened and we’ve smiled.
But did we ever think that this dumbing down would have major consequences?
Perhaps now it has.
I’ll call on Neil Postman again, who would no doubt be aghast at his prescience: “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk: culture death is a clear possibility.”
Can the media fight the prospect of cultural death through entertainment? It won’t be easy. It seems now that The New York Times runs about 10 stories under the general rubric “Donald Trump is a Dope” to every one about the situation in North Korea. (Though the pieces about North Korea have been very good.) Surely we need more reporting on the infrastructure bill, on the prospects for job retraining, on cyber-security and the chances that upcoming elections will actually render something like the will of the people. We could hear more about prisons, more about poverty, more about the environment. But as long as readers are clicking Dopey Donald stories, this will not be easy. Journalists will have to be willing, in effect, to fight their readers for control of the media. Will they be willing to do so?
So yes—no reading, no thought, no conversation worth the time: those conditions can undermine a republic as much, maybe more, than economic distress or crime or racism or sexism or what have you. So yes—no one thought, no one read, and the republic began to totter. And then (perhaps) it commenced to fall.
Meanwhile, the show goes on.
Photo above: Donald Trump speaks at the Indiana State Fairgrounds on September 27, 2017. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)