This week included the first debate of the 2016 presidential election. Did you watch?
You could sense the excitement Monday evening, the closing of doors as people rushed home to make sure not to miss anything. It had the feel of the Super Bowl: blue lights of the TV screen flooding living room after living room, the proud rooting for a chosen team, a clawing desire to win.
But it also held the feel of a car accident, a train wreck that people wanted to glimpse. What would go wrong? What outlandish things would Trump say? Would Clinton be able to hem him in and fend him off, or would he eviscerate her as easily as he did the Republican field?
I met three friends for dinner Monday night. In town for an afternoon of rock climbing, they were on a mission to make it home in time for the debate. “I want to see what happens,” one of them said. “It won’t change who I’m voting for, but I know it’ll be good.”
He was not the only one to say so — another friend stopped by to ask if I was watching. He too wanted to see the drama unfold onstage. The unpredictability of 2016 has transformed the race for the White House into top-rated reality TV.
That is our election today: entertainment. A sideshow. We are ostensibly choosing America’s next commander in chief, but it feels more like a trip to the Colosseum.
What has happened? This isn’t the first time a presidential election has taken on the carnival feel — the selection of Sarah Palin to be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office was another step in that direction.
She brought folksy appeal to the ticket but neither experience nor a global perspective. After the 2008 election loss, the former governor moved on to reality TV, hosting a 2010 show called “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.” According to People Magazine (always a trusted source) she is currently developing a Judge Judy-type courtroom program.
Reality is no longer real enough. We now select candidates more focused on Hollywood than Washington. Is this what voters consider “meaningful change”?
But two policy wonks standing behind podiums arguing the merits of Social Security reform makes for terrible television. No one is going to tune in for that show. Analysts projected the Clinton-Trump debate will be one of the landmark viewing events of 2016, with 17 percent more television viewers than Romney-Obama in 2012. And in the intervening four years much watching has migrated to online streaming media, which those numbers don’t account for. If we are upset with our choices for president, we sure give them our undivided attention. Perhaps our interest is really to be entertained.
A Palin presidency, however, would not have been entertaining, and neither would a Trump presidency. While it may be hilarious to watch the Republican nominee resurrect his signature tagline “You’re fired” in political form, he is without experience, temperament or the necessary judgment to lead. He is a conman stoking divisions and discontent. More of it won’t be entertaining to watch, and a Trump presidency wouldn’t be entertaining to live under.
So, what were viewers looking for? How many of the millions of them were trying to decide which one of these two candidates had the makings of a president? Or is that not what debates are for anymore?
Television companies appreciate them. If discord as entertaining as Trump versus Clinton could face off every year, it’d sprout a cottage industry with as many advertisers as the Super Bowl. And who wouldn’t want to see creative, funny depictions of red state versus blue, candidate versus candidate, issue versus issue. Perhaps Planned Parenthood could deploy croaking frogs and Focus on the Family a new World’s Most Interesting Man.
Maybe this is how we make America great again. Maybe we can sell ourselves back to viability. Maybe taking a page from our reality TV nominee’s book and stenciling our last names across the top floor of all of our houses from the North Country to the coast, from Cleveland to inner city Chicago, we pull us up by our bootstraps.
Really? That seems like a con. Rural America is struggling, and meanwhile Congress fails to meet to make basic compromises. America finds itself in a multipolar world amid powers not necessarily our friends. These are not joking times, not the moment for a clown, a conman. It will take vision, solid policy and hard choices to navigate the times we find ourselves in.
And yet, we as a country elect to tune in, to be entertained. We are trained to watch. We gripe about Washington and then refuse to engage in the boring meaningful work required to change it. We rush home in anticipation of getting to watch grownups act like toddlers onstage and then curse our lack of better choices. Is that true, we are without choices? Or are our politics a reflection of us? Do we have anything to offer, an attention span to listen on policy rather than vote for entertainment value?
There will always be conwomen and conmen. There will always be someone selling something we don’t need at a price we can’t afford, a shill looking to entertain.
And so, we have been left with one choice in this election. The cynical view has always been presidential elections are a choice between two evils, but not this year. This year we have a consummate politician, someone who in normal circumstances would be the very definition of bum in a call to “throw the bums out.” But the conman has transformed Hillary Clinton from sleaze into white knight. There is no other choice, the alternative is absurd, unthinkable.
So we have the election we built for ourselves. But at least we are entertained.
This column ran in the Conway Daily Sun.