I can’t recall a presidential debate in years past, where I laughed out loud while watching. Donald Trump is back, and he brought his Reality TV style with him. The debate seemed more like an episode of Survivor than a forum for deciding the next president of the United States. Maybe the Apprentice is a better analogy for the debate than Survivor, with Donald Trump holding court at the end of the show as the presidential apprentices tried to make the case that they deserved to be president.
The humor of reality TV comes from its violations of convention. When people violate accepted social norms by stabbing each other in the back, revealing secrets best kept hidden, or suffering ignominious defeat, people are (somewhat sadly) entertained. We laugh when people slip on a banana peel. We feel smug when hypocrites suffer. The laughs we get from Reality TV are often at the cost of someone else’s dignity. Observing these transgressions can be enlightening, however, since they reveal something hidden about our culture. The offenses remind us of the rules we are pledged to live by. Perhaps they help us to evaluate the unspoken rules, considering how we should behave socially.
Donald Trump continued his relentless attacks on Jeb Bush. As Jeb defended his brother’s record against terrorism by saying he kept America safe, Trump sounded like a Democrat as he pointed out that 9/11 occurred on George Bush’s watch. When Jeb spoke about the decision to fight the War in Iraq, Trump charged that George Bush lied to the American people, knowingly stating that national security was at risk due to (nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction. This attack by Trump may backfire, since many Republicans prefer to be in denial about the Bush II era. But, so far, Trump’s Teflon has been as effective as Ronald Reagan’s. In this show, Jeb played the role of the scapegoat well. Shades of Big Brother. A few of the others on stage defended George Bush, but they weren’t backing Jeb while doing so. Marco Rubio did a good job of defending George Bush’s presidency. He needed to be the “comeback adult” after he was pummeled in the last debate by Chris Christie who dropped out of the race after injecting his venom in the easiest target. Senator Rubio looked and sounded more assertive and less rehearsed, but one could see he was under pressure. He was like the runner coming in last in the Amazing Race hoping that the last leg of his journey was a non-elimination episode. Ben Carson played an interesting role. He finally began talking about the issues, but he still seemed like the American Idol contestant who doesn’t realize he can’t sing. Why not run for councilperson, mayor, school board chair, congressperson, senator, governor, or at least dog catcher before running for the presidency? We could ask Donald Trump the same question, but at least he’s connected to politicians and acted on the world stage in his business enterprises. Ted Cruz had his moments. He looked his best when he talked about Antonin Scalia, but he got into a hissy fit with Marco Rubio about who was the biggest liar. This kind of talk made both candidates look bad. I was waiting to hear Jerry Springer’s bell ring when they were going back and forth. John Kasich’s jaw twitched every time he was waiting for the anchors to finish asking him a question. Kasich didn’t seem nervous, but the jaw flapping was distracting. He may have scored a few points by pointing out how self-destructive the debate had become to the Republican Party. On Donald Trump’s show, there is only one winner; the rest are losers. There’s only six contestants left and it’s winner take all. The earth may get scorched in the process.
Popular culture has infiltrated many aspects of our lives. Lines have become blurred. Everything is a sales pitch. The news is political. Entertainment trumps all. The presidential debates were intended to help the voters make a decision about who should be the next president of the US, but the networks want ratings, the viewers want to be entertained, and the candidates want to win at all costs. The media love controversies which generate interest and business. It’s easy to point the finger at Donald Trump for bringing a Reality TV ethos to the presidential debate, but the truth is that our everyday lives are increasingly like a reality TV show. The Republican presidential debate reflects our values. Yes, I may have been laughing, but the joke may end up being on us.
Time out. Upon reflection, my review (above) of last night’s Republican debate is a bit snarky. I could have written about the issues. I could have analyzed the arguments. I would have written about the issues eight, twelve, sixteen years ago. But today’s debates are highly produced TV shows created to titillate the audience. They are embedded in a technologically advanced popular culture landscape. While this environment encourages responses in kind, I hope that everyone evaluates the candidates, both Democratic and Republicans, based upon their abilities to set an agenda and lead this country for the common good. Reality has a way of intruding on our entertaining fictions, and happy endings aren’t guaranteed in the Real World. Oops, that’s another reality TV show, isn’t it?