“The reality TV president.” It’s a ridiculously easy critique–Trump is cartoonish at times, his primary means of communication with the country is his infamous Twitter account, and his previous gig was on a literal reality TV show. The analysis practically writes itself: Trump’s background and demeanor are causing an unprecedented shift towards politics-as-entertainment.
Back in 2015, the Huffington Post announced that it would begin filing news about the Trump campaign in its “Entertainment” section, instead of under “Politics.” The Atlantic (and many other outlets) declared that the line between politics and entertainment had become impossibly blurred during this particular election season. But while there’s certainly something uniquely significant about Trump’s campaign and ensuing presidency, there’s actually very little about Trump’s approach that is truly novel.There’s a long history that’s given us the expectation that our politics should entertain us.
America has a long and storied history of blurring the line between entertainment and politics. Even during the earliest parts of our nation’s history, politicians desperate to create solid political coalitions with poor whites (who had previously been barred from voting by landowning requirements) would hold giant parties to entertain voters. In an episode of the podcast “The United States of Anxiety,” Queens College history professor Joshua Freeman argues that “there’s a long tradition in American life of elections as entertainment.” He explains that election day itself was often used as an excuse for drinking, partying, and general ruckus.
The Lincoln-Douglas debates are remembered for the significance they played in the national debate over slavery and the skill of the debaters, but they were also a functional “traveling circus,” with bands, cannons, and large audiences that arrived to witness the spectacle. While the events were important and hugely influential on the larger debate about slavery, much of the fame they accrued was actually owed to how entertaining the whole exhibition was.
It’s also almost universally acknowledged that the Nixon-Kennedy debate in 1960 fundamentally altered the outcome of the election. The optics of a tan, vibrant, and articulate Kennedy debating a pale, sweaty Nixon gave Kennedy’s campaign an overnight boost. Our nation’s first televised presidential debate didn’t affect the election because of a smart argument or a skillful political maneuver, but because of fairly superficial presentation issues that would come to largely define political debate in America.
The effect of the medium almost cannot be overstated–until this point, television was solely an entertainment source. And in many ways, it stayed that way. Larry Sabato, political analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, says that these dynamics continue to influence the political process today. “When parties are considering their candidates they ask: Who would look better on TV? Who comes across better? Who can debate better?”
Even some of the seemingly unique aspects of Trump’s style aren’t really all that new. Freeman describes an eerily familiar scene when he explains the tactics of Southern Democrat George Wallace’s campaign in 1968. Wallace held famously large rallies–a country western band played “Dixie,” and Wallace theatrically engaged with protesters, even suggesting violence against them. Much like Wallace, Richard Nixon’s advance people also ensured that protesters were present at his rallies so that he could play off of their criticisms. Ronald Reagan’s acting chops and experience as a public persona are often credited as major factors in his rise to national political prominence–and then the presidency. There are no shortage of examples of the ways that the politics-as-entertainment trend has greatly influenced the American political process throughout history.
The primary difference in the age of Trump is this: before, we could pretend politics was entertaining in the same way a smart documentary is. It’s educational, interesting, and paying close attention can make you better at arguing with your friends. But now it’s been exposed as the reality TV show it’s always been–and we have to deal with the real causes of this bent in our politics. Like so much of the injustice and immorality in our political system, we can’t blame it all on Trump. Instead, we have to look at all the more innocuous ways these tendencies and justifications are embedded in the system. In a sense, we have to blame it on ourselves–America has a history of eating up entertaining politics at the expense of real debate.
We love it, and we always have; it distances us from the material realities that our politics affect, especially at the national level. The people who can afford for politics to be entertaining are those who are (to some degree) largely insulated from the significant effects of the politics entertaining them. It’s a lot harder to revel in the drama of a congressional hearing or express your political frustration in the form of a music video parody when the policies that are being considered will have real effects on your life.
But especially as believers, we can’t afford to continue treating politics like entertainment–rooting for “our team,” focusing our political energies on the best zingers and satire, consuming more “political” analysis than policy analysis. “Winning” and “losing” has real effects, usually most significantly on the most marginalized and powerless. Instead of shaking our heads at Trump, we need to examine how we’ve often been the viewers that politicians and media outlets are catering to.
The healthcare debate is a great example of this. We can greatly disagree about the best and most efficient means of providing healthcare, but we shouldn’t need to debate about the basis for our actions and proposed solutions: compassion for the poor and sick. However, we often focus on lobbing insults and satirizing the other side – and we have to distance ourselves from the material reality of our broken healthcare system to do it. Those who are most intimately and significantly impacted by the results of the debate – the disabled, elderly, and poverty-stricken communities struggling to afford healthcare – simply don’t have the luxury of treating the healthcare debate like an opportunity for another snarky tweet.
In the case of almost every other hot button political issue of the moment, the results will have the greatest effects on those with very little political or social clout: refugees, immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities. It’s tempting to distance ourselves from real people fleeing violence and waiting in airports around the country. And we do this most effectively when we’re treating their safety and legal status as another card to play in our political poker game.
Seeking racial justice, advocating for compassionate immigration policies, and actively participating in local and national government is hard work. It’s much harder than sitting back and being entertained by the difficult and complicated process. While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the satire and the memes, allowing politics to become a source of pure entertainment easily becomes a palliative for true compassionate action.
It makes sense that the more power and privilege you have in any given setting, the more likely you are to have sufficient insulation from the effects of changing policies to find the drama surrounding them merely entertaining. This is exactly why Christ-followers should be the last people to become passive observers, idly entertained by political spectacle: we are supposed to be advocates for the poor and the powerless. Even if we have the luxury of being less seriously affected by the policies our elected representatives are debating, we have an obligation to have more than a passing interest in the material effects these policies can have.
When we place all of the blame for our politics-as-entertainment on our “reality TV president,” we lose sight of a much more uncomfortable truth: we’re more than willing to trade serious and compassionate political action for campy political drama. We love the tweets and funny lines from televised debates more than we’d care to admit, and there’s a long history that’s given us the expectation that our politics should entertain us.
Instead of being the consumers who motivate this bent toward entertainment, Christ-followers have an obligation to seek truth, justice, and understanding. Watch some Saturday Night Live and take some jabs against a bill on Twitter, but resist the temptation to turn everything political into nothing but another form of entertainment.