It would be difficult to imagine a more apt description of America in 2018. We live in a time of two countervailing trends. On the one hand, as described in Brooke Gladstone’s slim tome The Trouble With Reality, our President fits the four criteria of a demagogue first identified nearly 200 years ago by James Fenimore Cooper. Trump: (1) “poses as a mirror for the masses”; (2) “ignites waves of intense emotion”; (3) “uses that emotion for political gain”; and (4) “breaks the rules that govern us.” On the other, as Emily Fischer points out in her New York magazine essay The Great Awokening, the mainstreaming of the term “woke” is having its moment as society becomes increasingly sensitive to “the experiences of racial, cultural, sexual, and gender identities besides one’s own and to the injustices that shape our world.”
How can it be that we are led by a demagogue caught on tape bragging about groping women while powerful men are simultaneously being brought low by their sexual misdeeds? And why is it that some men are escaping accountability while others are shunned? How can it be that in a time when more information is available to us than at any other time in human history that objective “truth” seems more elusive?
I think it is a combination of a few things - first, whether a person is capable of feeling shame, second, whether that person has people who support him no matter what, and third, the incentive structure for news outlets to frame stories in a way that generates outrage, not information.
The distinction between shame and embarrassment is an important one. Embarrassment results from our own feeling that we have done something wrong, whereas shame occurs when others make us feel bad about something we have done. In other words, you can only be shamed when you internalize criticism from other people. It should be no surprise that Trump is Exhibit A for this phenomenon. Faced with an avalanche of evidence that he engaged in various sexual misdeeds, from consensual adultery with “adult film” stars to sexual assault, Trump simply calls everyone accusing him a liar and moves on. On the other hand, you have Al Franken, who resigned his Senate seat after a photo and first-person account of his groping of a woman named Leann Tweeden was made public and other women came forward with allegations that he groped them too.
But Trump’s resilience and Franken’s resignation would not have happened if the former did not have an amen corner that defended him while the latter was dropped like a bad habit. Having handed his protectors the ammunition they needed, and without any way to corroborate Trump’s accusers’ allegations, the media moved on and all was forgotten. Franken was not so fortunate. Leading members of his party deserted him and, he felt both embarrassment and shame – that is, he acknowledged his caddish behavior and he was made to feel bad about that behavior by others, who told him he should step down from office.
Indeed, this pattern has persisted as the intersection between politics and sexual misconduct has sharpened. Roy Moore was “credibly accused” (to use the preferred vernacular) of sexual assault and harassment of teenage girls that occurred in the late 1970s, yet he resisted calls by some that he withdraw from his race for U.S. Senate, was endorsed by Trump, had money spent on his behalf by the Republican National Committee, and although he lost, still got more than 600,000 votes. He did this by essentially following Trump’s playbook – deny the allegations, blame “the liberal media” for smearing him, and rely on sympathetic reporters and news outlets to muddy the waters and call into question the accusations and their timing.
Of course, Moore is not unique. Congressman Blake Farenthold paid a former staffer more than $80,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit and simply chose not to run for reelection, he’s still in office. Congressman Scott DesJarlais carried on an adulterous affair and asked his mistress to get an abortion (family values guy and all) yet continues to represent the Fourth Congressional District in Tennessee and of course, former Senator David Vitter’s name turned up in the “black book” of a DC-area madam, and not only did he not step down, he was reelected in Louisiana. Deny, deflect, and rely on your right-wing news protectors to turn your sordid personal life into a vast left-wing conspiracy appears to be a sound political strategy.
Republicans have deftly taken advantage of two aspects of today’s media landscape – its fragmentation and, the reflexive willingness of at the so-called “mainstream” media to ascribe fault equally to both political parties, regardless of the subject. One need look no further than the fact that Hillary Clinton was adjudged to be less trustworthy than Donald Trump, a belief that was in part driven by the “vast right wing conspiracy” but also the mainstream media’s obsession over her email usage and its purported reflection of her shadiness. Meanwhile, Trump’s bombast was widely ridiculed, but aspects of his professional career, like his multiple bankruptcies and settlement of claims of racial discrimination, were not reported on with nearly the focus that the Clinton email server story garnered. Indeed, a study reported in the Columbia Journalism Review showed that in the final six days of the campaign, the Clinton email server story was referenced as much as her policy positions were in the last sixty-nine days of the election.
Further, we learned recently that no less than six media outlets were aware of Trump’s affair with adult film actress Stormy Daniels before the election but none reported on it because, according to them, the reporting did not meet their journalistic standards. That is a curious excuse considering media outlets were also aware that the Russian government had hacked into the DNC’s email server, stolen Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s personal email and handed all of that data over to Wikileaks, which dutifully published it all, in tranches, in order to gin up media coverage. Imagine if the Nixon plumbers took the information they stole from DNC headquarters in the Watergate Hotel and instead of being prosecuted for it, had their ill-gotten gains printed on the front page of The Washington Post.
For this, we have the carnival barker in chief to thank. I do not know if today’s culture is a reflection of Trump or if Trump is a reflection of today’s culture. Trump is our first (and I suspect will be our only) President who is also in World Wrestling Entertainment’s Hall of Fame, and that is fitting, for Trump’s style shares much with the artificial world of “faces” (fan favorites) and “heels” (villains) pro wrestling relies on. Professional wrestling characters are sharply written with little nuance and they use their time on the microphone to generate heat from the crowd. It is no wonder that one of the biggest heels on the indie circuit in the South last year was a guy who created “The Progressive Liberal” gimmick, including wrestling tights festooned with Democratic donkeys and who came into the ring wearing Hillary Clinton t-shirts. His was an easy character to boo in the heart of Trump Country, but the goal in pro wrestling, like talk radio, is to elicit a reaction, one way or the other.
In Howard Stern’s autobiographical movie Private Parts, two radio executives discuss a survey they conducted trying to understand Stern’s popularity. The research found that Stern fans were highly engaged and wanted to hear what he would say next, but crucially, Stern haters actually listened to the show for even longer periods of time, but for the same reason - they wanted to hear what he would say next.
This sensibility has now extended deeply and pervasively into our politics and culture. Cable news shows line up guests who “debate” off of talking points that would not be out of place in a WWE ring, the predictable liberal vs. conservative argument that first flowered on CNN’s groundbreaking show Crossfire but has been reduced to a lowest-common-denominator discussion where Trump supporters ignore his myriad of deficiencies and Trump haters bemoan the end of the republic. Meanwhile, the same has extended to popular culture - the outrage, the reaction to the outrage, and the inevitable moving on to the next story in the never ending cycle all perpetuated on social media and television.
In the end, we have incentivized cable news, newspapers, and web outlets to turn politics into professional wrestling, to create storylines of heroes and villains while also creating cliff hangers to keep us engaged and tuned in. I cannot think of better evidence that we get the government we deserve.
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