In June 1954 on national television, Joe Welch, the US Army’s chief counsel, exposed Senator Joseph McCarthy’s dubious morality with those two legendary questions: “Have you no decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” Such was the novelty of television back then that having given McCarthy an authoritative forum for his views, TV could now serve as the instrument of his destruction.
We all know what followed. The media attained the highest point of its legitimacy and authority during the Vietnam War with the publication of the Pentagon Papers and then the unfolding of the Watergate scandal. That ascendancy ran parallel to the rapid discrediting of politics as a vocation. Journalists were heroes. Politicians were scoundrels.
Thirty years later, with the revelations of the media’s blindness to and sometimes complicity with the lies that led America into the Iraq War, journalists joined politicians in the space of detention into which public opinion puts those figures who betray the people’s trust. From that point on, America, once dubbed the oldest young country in the world by Gertrude Stein, began to experience the historical version of a senior moment. It began to undergo a Weimar moment.
Existing between 1919 and 1933, the Weimar Republic was Germany’s first experience of democracy. Transparency of the political process, freedom of association, an openness to all groups and factions to express themselves and vie, through legitimate means, for power became established features of social and political life. Culture underwent a revolution as well. To borrow a formulation from Peter Gay’s landmark study of the Weimar period, outsiders such as Jews, homosexuals, experimental artists, and daring psychologists became insiders.
The results, however, were disastrous. The instruments of democracy were appropriated by anti-democratic forces and used to undermine the democratic institutions that had made them available. And the breaking of cultural taboos reverberated from high culture into the depths of popular culture and custom, making once-taboo practices, from bestiality to pedophilia, semi-underground styles of gratification. Occurring simultaneously, the twin specters of economic despair and profligate wealth beset the population.
One of the most alarming characteristics of our current political season is that it is without historical analogy, and therefore without precedents to navigate by.
The bursting of boundaries in the culture brought to life a decadent atmosphere. An acceleration of mental and physical stimulation spawned manic phases of boredom on the one hand, and the wild pursuit of ever more stimulation on the other. This created a hybrid force, half cultural and half political, in which a nihilistic culture rejected the compromise and rational discourse of democratic politics, and democratic politics started to incorporate the extreme forms of stimulation that characterized the culture.
I don’t want to argue for any type of close historical analogy between our time and the Weimar Republic. One of the most alarming characteristics of our current political season is that it is without historical analogy, and therefore without precedents to navigate by. If anything, we experienced the wild, open creativity of the Weimar period 50 years ago, during the 1960s. The political dysfunction belongs to our moment when, as during Weimar, politics and then journalism have become discredited, leaving entertainment with the last dissolving word. Even people who lament this development often take their critique from the world of entertainment and not from the realm of serious public discourse. We have various establishment pundits using the term “truthiness,” the formulation of a comedian, Stephen Colbert, to describe the pulverization of stable meaning by, well, comedians and showmen.
Great numbers of people, their senses incited by simultaneous digital diversions, are bored. They want to be excited. If they are in economic or some other material despair, they wanted to be excited by the spectacle of those not in despair toppled from their comfortable redoubts.
In this country now, a perfect storm has made instant gratification, not truth or objectivity, the highest criterion by which the quality of the news is judged: The erosion of journalists’ credibility in the wake of the invasion of Iraq; the rise of the internet and social media as alternative sources of the news; the economic reconfiguration of news organizations as advertising revenue and circulation declined and frantic attempts to appeal to the internet audience ensued; the domination of the market over every aspect of life.
After the journalists have exposed the politicians as clowns, and after the billion new outlets on the Web have exposed the journalists as clowns, the only figures left to believe in are the professional performers and clowns, whose authority lies in their vehement rejection of authority.
In this news environment, the pursuit of pleasure is more gratifying and reliable to an audience than the patient search for a rational apprehension of what really happened, and how to think about what happened. After the journalists have exposed the politicians as clowns, and after the billion new outlets on the Web have exposed the journalists as clowns, the only figures left to believe in are the professional performers and clowns, whose authority lies in their vehement rejection of authority.
The finishing touch to this absolutely relativized environment is the increasing economic stratification of society. Frank Zappa once observed that there has never been a successful musical style that was not accompanied by a style of dress. In America now there is not an economic class or group that is not accompanied by its own autonomous, disconnected picture of reality, with its own threshold for the truth. Every group has its own style of rationality. Do you say that you have proved–with evidence, argument, and rhetoric–that someone is lying? I say that you are lying.
“Have you no decency, sir? At long last have you left no sense of decency?” Who has the authority to ask the question? Who is so free of the appearance of partisanship and/or privilege that they will be allowed to define what is decent? Who is so devoid of self-interest that they are considered decent themselves? Who can pose the question without immediately becoming subjected to a thousand examinations, investigations, and scrutinies, and pummeled by derision and invective? To declare oneself an advocate of decency in public invites an indecent fate.
This quandary may, however, be a blessing in disguise. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, the suppression of unabashed moral authority in the media could well create an excruciating need for it to be reborn.
Into this moment, which is all at once a vacuum and a kind of big bang of new creation leading to who knows what type of reality, comes Donald J. Trump. He is a performer who knows how to make a lie believable by making it pleasurable to hear. The media gatekeepers, both discredited and reduced to isolated niches in society, are powerless to expose him. The vast number of Trump supporters, whose boredom, desperation, or alienation rationalize his irrationality, are impervious to reason, evidence, or argument.
Yet Trump is hardly a throwback to the fascists of yore. He is not a displaced outsider the likes of whom made up the political mob in the Europe in the 1930s; and he is not one of Peter Gay’s artistic or intellectual outsiders. He is a social insider who is now a political outsider.
Trump is the first nominee of a major political party in the United States to be a businessman without any experience in politics or in some aspect of the administration of public services. His only non-business experience is as a performer in a reality show in which he performed his actual life as a businessman, a vocation that, as countless exposés have demonstrated, has been as much a performance as an authentic activity.
Drawing on the general revulsion against politicians and on the domination of money culture, Trump in the primary cycle was able to run circles around the professional politicians who were his rivals. Forced by economic pressure to report on entertainment as if it was a series of major political events, the establishment media seized on Trump’s appeal and covered him as a harmless cultural diversion, thus unwittingly laying the groundwork for his startling political adventure.
He is a performer who knows how to make a lie believable by making it pleasurable to hear. The media gatekeepers, both discredited and reduced to isolated niches in society, are powerless to expose him.
Trump exploited his openings. For a politician, the exposure of his or her hypocrisy or dishonesty is poison. For Trump it has been an opportunity.
A businessman exposing the lies of a political opponent as he himself prevaricates his way to victory is not a shifty and therefore despicable politician. He is, rather, someone who is pursuing the respectable commercial activity of one leading competitor taking on another in a particularly tough market. And if the charges against Trump are true, so what? A politician lives or dies by whether she can convince voters of her integrity. If she can, success sometimes follows. In America now, a businessperson’s success is sterling proof of his integrity.
This is the most crucial difference between Trump and the political and media class he has been taking on. All politicians have to market themselves, but they are political dabblers in business strategy. Trump is a businessman who has plunged into politics. He knows, instinctively, how to drum a sentiment or idea into the minds and hearts of people by plugging it in simple, memorable bites of pleasurable, sometimes exciting diversion. In a new media environment where popularity has become the preeminent value, the media had to give a magnifying forum to each one of Trump’s most outrageous or divisive pronouncements, even as it recoiled from them. The news cycle became vicious: Trump fed the monster, the monster fed Trump, the monster attacked Trump to compensate for its gluttony, Trump attacked the monster, thereby increasing its appetite for more and more Trump. There seemed to be no way out.
There is a moment in the Maysles Brothers’ short documentary about Marlon Brando that captures perhaps the only true human gift Trump seems to possess: the actor’s visceral ability to obliterate a familiar storyline and put a new one in his audience’s heads. On a junket promoting his film Morituri, Brando is interviewed by various journalists. But he is so repelled by the commercial act of promoting the film that he undercuts the purpose of the junket even as he seems to be complying with it. At one point, out of nowhere, he destroys the train of thought of one female journalist by observing an “idiosyncrasy” about the shape of her mouth. Thrown for a moment, she tries to recover, only to be derailed again by Brando, who tells her that he cannot see her face because her hair has fallen over it.
For a politician, the exposure of his or her hypocrisy or dishonesty is poison. For Trump it has been an opportunity.
Leave aside what might or might not have been Brando’s misogyny. What he did was to instantly reconfigure the familiar world of the press junket and the celebrity interview. He left the journalist who was questioning him and the crowd of journalists around her speechless, not because they did not know what to say, but because they did not know what to say in a situation that had settled into a public ritual. Calling two United States senators “Little Marco” and “Lyin’ Ted” is hardly shocking in private life or cultural life. In politics it is like Darwin discovering the law of evolution, or Freud revolutionizing psychology with his formulation of the id. It adds, as someone once said far more benignly about the function of poetry, to the available stock of reality.
Trump is unlikely to win, but it is inevitable that more and better Trumps are on the way. I recently used business terminology to describe Trump as a beta test or a “proof of concept”–a prototype meant to test viability in the marketplace. In that regard he has succeeded beyond his most fevered dreams.
As more and more wealthy people rise into the ranks of mega-wealth, we will see an increasing number of presidential nominees coming from outside the political system or the universe of public service. Michael Bloomberg, whose implacable wealth helped him clinch an unprecedented third term as mayor of New York, was a harbinger of Trump. It was one of the more surreal moments of this political season when the country held its breath waiting to see if Bloomberg would step in to try and stop Trump. There it was, two billionaires prepared to cut out the middleman, as it were, of soliciting money and votes, and arrive in the White House direct from the manufacturer.
These are the figures the establishment media have to prepare for. They will come from Silicon Valley, Hollywood, business, finance, and heaven knows where else. They will be, to a man and a woman, insiders who have gamed the system and now present themselves as legitimate political outsiders.
Journalists, of course, will have to be more proactive. They will, in fact, have to redefine the boundaries of what it means to be proactive as a journalist. They will also have to resist the atmosphere that made Trump possible in the first place.
Perhaps it is time to bring back the gatekeepers in order to restore the authority necessary to unmask cunning and resourceful frauds like Trump and his descendants. Perhaps it is necessary to re-examine digital culture’s contempt for expertise and authority, its celebration of and insistence on relative truth, and its unwitting commitment to mendacity masquerading as unexamined free speech. And perhaps it is long past time to stop covering the culture as a click-baiting set of diversions, and to start seeing it for what it has become: the breeding ground for a growing political malaise. The Apprentice, it turns out, was a political event.
This piece is part of a weekly CJR series titled “Media in the Age of Trump.”
Photo: Scene from a literary cabaret in 1902 Berlin, Germany (Ullstein Bild / Getty Images)