I recently watched the 1980 presidential debate between incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter and his Republican challenger, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan. The debate is striking in retrospect, not because of memorable zingers (Reagan’s “There you go again” barely qualifies), but because of a tone and tenor that today’s audiences and TV execs would find downright tedious.
The members of the media panel didn’t interrupt the candidates or inject themselves into the debate. The candidates didn’t talk over each other, and neither accused his opponent of being a racist, a Russian agent, an anti-Semite, a baby-killer, a communist or a liar.
At one point, after a Reagan critique, Carter responded, “Governor Reagan is making some very misleading and disturbing statements.” Similarly, an allegation by Carter brought this rejoinder from Reagan: “The figures that the president has just used about California is a distortion of the situation there.” That’s as nasty as it got.
The journalists didn’t dispute the answers or try to create memorable moments for themselves, instead respecting the public’s ability to decipher obfuscations. ABC News’ Barbara Walters came closest to inserting herself into the fray when she observed, “I would like to say that neither candidate answered specifically the question of a specific policy for dealing with terrorism.” But rather than badgering the candidates until she was satisfied, she understood that the event was not about her and moved on.
It wasn’t that the political issues of four decades ago didn’t lend themselves to the theatrics we see today. Reagan’s proposals and gubernatorial record were regularly criticized as bad for minorities. Carter’s inability to free the hostages in Iran left him vulnerable to claims of weakness and, worse, he was once menaced by a rabbit. Carter could have called Reagan a “racist,” and Reagan could have ridiculed “Little Jimmy” to no end.
To understand why none of that happened merely requires us to recall the media world of 1980. The first 24-hour cable news channel, CNN, had debuted just a few months before the Carter-Reagan debate and was available in fewer than 2 million homes. There was no MSNBC and no Fox News. There was no internet and, therefore, no hate-spewing blogs, no insulting memes, no disgusting tweets, and no fake, manipulated images capable of immediately reaching millions.
But as cable TV and, later, digital platforms flourished, so did the need for revenue. What became evident was that Americans would tune in to watch a good fight, which brought us “Crossfire” on CNN and countless imitators on other channels pitting left vs. right, each one louder and more aggressive than the one before. Americans were encouraged to choose sides, driving us deeper into our partisan corners.
On the entertainment side, television struck gold with “reality” programming, placing seemingly ordinary citizens in voyeuristic and titillating settings, asking viewers to cheer one contestant, jeer the other and cast their votes.
Out of this divisive and salacious swamp climbed the combative, shocking and polarizing Donald Trump, stepping onto a cultural stage constructed almost specifically for him. The billionaire businessman’s years of self-promotion and pervasive tabloid presence culminated in his stint as ringmaster of “The Apprentice,” one of the most popular reality shows of all time. As a candidate and president, against a sea of traditional politicians still practicing the old proprieties, Trump flourishes because he says and does that which fits perfectly within the gaudy landscape created by our modern news and entertainment media.
He is the political pioneer of the Narcissistic Age. He cannot be too outrageous, because shocking and offensive are spoon-fed to America as the norm, courtesy of both unscripted and scripted television, which grows bolder with every new series in portraying what was once taboo language and scandalous behavior.
Pundits wonder why millions of Americans aren’t shocked by Trump. The shouting demagogues on cable news who bemoan our polarized politics and our lowered standards, and the producers and entertainers in Hollywood who curse his name, should come to terms with the fact that Trump is the progeny of their own talents and efforts.
Issues won’t decide the 2020 election. In presidential years, millions of ballots are cast by Americans who are ambivalent about politics and hang up on pollsters but who get pushed to the polls by the get-out-the-vote machines. When uninterested citizens feel compelled to vote next year, which candidate will once again be most comfortable and familiar to them based on their daily media intake?
After watching a recent Trump rally, a friend who cares little about politics smiled and said, “You have to hand it to him. He’s entertaining.” Chalk up another vote for Trump.
Gary Abernathy, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post, is a freelance writer based in Hillsboro, Ohio.