The theater of politics has always played to the skillset of the showman. After all, one is unlikely to ascend to higher office without the ability to sell people on a vision, and engage people to spread the word. We like to tell ourselves that we vote for the most principled, moral, upstanding person that best represents our values. For anyone that’s read anything about cognitive science you know this is false. We lie to ourselves and say that we analyzed the facts and came to a rational conclusion, when in reality all we did was elect the individual that made us FEEL that they represented our values. This has always been true, and yet only now is it particularly obvious because Donald Trump is in the White House. Politics hasn’t always been this level of spectacle, let’s remember that it wasn’t until the 1920’s that Presidents could even speak on the radio. Charisma, persuasion ability, and star power didn’t used to matter nearly as much, because you had to hear information secondhand, or be told by the local paper that Politician A or B gave a rousing speech.
The radio was a game changer. All of a sudden, charisma really, really mattered. Take a look at virtually every President since: FDR, Kennedy, Nixon, Clinton, Obama, Trump, Reagan, Bush, all different, but had one thing in common: Charisma. We now expect the flowing oratory, projected strength, or the “get a beer with” quality Karl Rove used to talk about in reference to George W. Bush. The next big zeitgeist shift came with the advent of 24 hour cable news. Previously, you didn’t get to hear that much from your politician, unless you went out of your way to go see them, maybe during a speech or campaign ad. Now, we are completely immersed in every vote, every hearing, and every speech. We are glued to House Judiciary hearings that wouldn’t have even rated CSPAN coverage 10 years ago. In my article Donald Trump and Celebrity Magic, I attribute a lot of our newfound political attention span to the celebrity and star power of Trump. For example, I can only vaguely remember the 2013 shutdown. I remember it happening, but I actually had to go look it up to refresh my memory on how it went down. The fact of the matter is that most of us just didn’t follow it as intensely as we do now.
All of that brings me to 2018 politics, the next evolution of political theater. Our Congress just shut down the entire government, and I’m seeing over the top performances of overacting that make Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever look like an Academy Award winner. Both sides cannot rush to a microphone or TV interview fast enough to decry the sabotage of our democracy that the other side is clearly at fault for. The past week has been full of Razzy level performances from both sides, whether it’s Jeff Flake comparing Trump’s use of Fake News to Stalin, or Corey Booker with the highest degree of faux outrage I’ve ever seen in grilling Kirstjen Nielsen, or even “Fake Tears” Chuck Schumer rallying his caucus to shutdown the government over the DACA deal, we are seeing performance theater at a whole new level.
In all fairness though, I have to admit that it is riveting. Let’s be honest, there’s no way we need a new House of Cards or West Wing, because they can’t beat real life. It’s astonishing that even a House Oversight hearing can actually pull serious ratings on TV. The interesting point to this shutdown is how completely and utterly performative it is. Make no mistake, this is all about the respective party bases. The Trump base, myself included, refuses to cave on the DACA issue, and the Democrats can not be seen by their base to support anything Trump does, or risk a primary challenge. Now, we expect our politicians to not only vote on the issue we want, but to be sufficiently outraged and put on a proper performance for us to prove their loyalty. This shutdown is a golden opportunity to fundraise and grandstand at the expense of running the country.
There will be two perspectives on this shutdown:
The Republicans will say Democrats voted for illegal immigrants against children and the military, and shut down the government on an unrelated issue to the spending bill.
The Democrats will be able to go to their districts and say that they literally shut the government down to oppose Trump and secure DACA. They also want to stall until the midterms to take back Congress.
I have to say, as much as I criticize the usual limp-wristed Republican efforts at setting the narrative, they have been absolutely savage on this one. They had SchumerShutdown.com operational within minutes of the shutdown, then they had an ad called “Complicit” which ties the Democrats to choosing illegal aliens over American citizens. Even the White House answer line has a pre-recorded line about Democrats being obstructionists playing on loop. I do believe the Republicans have the advantage on this one, if we should even be characterizing this absurdity as an advantage. The reality for Democrats is that even if you love DACA, which seems to be their central issue, it’s astounding to me that it’s the hill they want to die on. The campaign ads the Republicans are going to run during the midterms write themselves. The worst writer in the universe could write the following campaign ad:
Democrats shut down the government over amnesty for millions of illegals, leaving children and the military in the lurch.
Either way this plays out, we all lose. Our government can barely function except as performance theater, as evidenced by the dismal approval ratings of Congress. On the plus side, at least while we lose, we can watch the most entertaining theater of all time. The irony is that in order to stop all the grandstanding, we’d have to stop televising everything. No more hearings, no more press briefings, nothing.
And you don’t want that, do you?
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Steve is the author of Forging the Iron Mind, and is the founder and CEO of Americana Prime.