The Washington Post recently documented President Donald Trump’s 3,000th lie since taking office. Beyond this, he is presently embroiled in two scandals that left-leaning observers swear will be his undoing: alleged collusion between his campaign and Russia to alter the course of the 2016 election, and buying the silence of porn actress Stormy Daniels. These critics bandy the word “impeachment” around like a shuttlecock.
If one were talking about a Democrat with the stature of, say, a Barack Obama, any single one of Trump’s missteps would have brought the Republican cavalry over the hills, articles of impeachment in hand. But when it comes to Trump, every failing whets the allegiance of his supporters and his popularity surges.
The reason for this paradox is clear: America is a television nation, meaning that the most pressing need of the electorate, especially Trump’s, is to be entertained. This was the president’s unspoken promise: to keep his celebrity alive, to tweet without letup, and to keep the laughs coming. In this, he has not failed.
In truth, I have been swept up myself. On those rare days when there is no drama emanating from this White House, no outrageous tweets, I feel a sort of letdown. But then POTUS goes on the attack against a real or perceived critic, mocking people’s looks and even their disabilities, and I am once again engaged.
Perhaps, then, Trump was onto something when he labeled himself a “ stable genius.” He knew early on, when so many of us refused to take him seriously, that his black-and-white world of friends and enemies, bad guys and good guys, real versus “fake” news would have organic appeal to true believers looking for conspiracies and easy answers to complex problems, so long as his views were couched in outrageous, entertaining terms. If he were not confident of this, would he ever have risked asserting that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue, shoot somebody and not lose any voters?
I must, then, admit to a grudging fascination with a man who has read his supporters so accurately, so well, and has mastered the trick of making them do his bidding while at the same time despising them. I am mindful of an observation by the legendary journalist H.L. Mencken: “Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage.” The difference is that the monkeys don’t know what they’re doing, but Trump appears sublimely aware that he can lead his followers to perdition if need be in order to burnish his image and preserve his own skin.
And so the vulgar show pulses on. We wake in the morning in anxious anticipation of the latest abomination from the White House swamp. If Trump himself is not tweeting his personal indignations, then his incompetent, self-destructive Cabinet secretaries and advisers act as willing proxies. (Pity Sarah Huckabee Sanders, tasked with sorting the mess!)
All this has proven two things.
First, there is no longer a need for fiction; an accurate rendering of Trump’s shenanigans already exceeds the most potent powers of literary imagination. What writer could improve upon it?
Second, the idea of an informed electorate being essential to democracy has been rendered quaint, and should be replaced by another axiom: an entertainment-needy nation finds gratification in what amounts to political pornography — the more wildly prurient, the better.
And now there is talk of awarding the president the Nobel Peace Prize (!) because of the developments in the two Koreas. Who could have imagined it? Who could have anticipated this installment in the series? Could there be a greater scandal than to award this prize to a vandal?
Tune in tomorrow to see how it all turns out — or not. Because, folks, that’s entertainment, and it’s what keeps us coming back for more.
Robert Klose teaches at the University of Maine at Augusta-Bangor. He is a frequent contributor of essays to The Christian Science Monitor and a four-time winner of the Maine Press Association award for opinion writing.
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