If you locked all the Hollywood reality TV writers in a room until they came up with a script that would compare to our nightly news episodes they’d never be seen again. Each evening we tune in to discover what our crazy cast of characters has been up to today. And we are not disappointed.
Just in the last few days…over at the Values Voter Summit the billionaire with the uniquely crafted hair was waving his Bible in the air. Back in July, when asked whether he has ever asked God for forgiveness for his actions, Mr. Trump responded, “…if I do something wrong, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”
But on Saturday he was all about reading the inscription in his “favorite book” and in his closing remarks held it aloft once more, reminding the evangelical voters, “This is the key.” Except maybe for the forgiveness part?
In New Hampshire a 74-year old socialist, Bernie Sanders, leads Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton 46% to 30%. One of two very smart women in the Great Race made some very curious decisions to take her government email off the grid and wipe her server. (Inquiring minds will be lining up at the October Benghazi hearings to find out why.)
Meanwhile the other very smart woman, Carly Fiorina, was bombarded with condoms at an Iowa tailgate party by supporters of Planned Parenthood. (Really, you could not make this stuff up. But wait, there’s more!)
Muslim imams are calling for famed neuro-surgeon Ben Carson to drop out of the race because he couldn’t support a candidate that values Sharia Law more than the US Constitution.
Also at the Values Voter Summit, Senator Marco Rubio’s announcement of the retirement of Speaker of the House John Boehner was greeted by cheers. The cheers turned to boos when the Bible-thumping Trump skewered Rubio as a “clown” for his position on immigration.
The union-busting Wisconsin governor who commanded an early lead in Iowa, Scott Walker, joined Texas governor Rick Perry as the first two candidates voted off the island by their low poll numbers. Why such low numbers for Mr. Walker?
My theory, and it pains me to offer it: He is not entertaining enough.
“Entertainment” is taken from the Latin words inter “between” and tenere “to hold.” As Neal Gabler has documented in Life: the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, “Entertainment is mainly about fun. It pulls us in, holding us captive, taking us deeper into our own emotions and senses, before releasing us. [Think of how you slowly reemerge as you walk out of a movie.] Entertainment is Plato’s worst nightmare.”
Gabler makes the case that, “The deliberate application of the techniques of theater to politics, religion, education, literature, commerce, warfare, crime, everything, has converted them into branches of show business, where the overriding objective is getting and satisfying an audience.”
Political debate has traditionally engaged our rational faculties, which mediate and critique our emotional and visceral responses. Consider how Lincoln was elected: in the Lincoln-Douglas debates one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, then the other candidate spoke for 90 minutes, and then the first candidate was allowed a 30-minute “rejoinder.”
Ronald Reagan launched his career in politics with a densely reasoned 30-minutes speech, “A Time for Choosing” filled with facts and statistics about issues like juvenile delinquency.
Entertainment makes an end run around the intellect, stimulating the nervous system in much the same way drugs do.
Gabler continues, “If the primary effect of the media has been to turn nearly everything into entertainment, the secondary and ultimately more significant effect has been to force nearly everything to turn itself into entertainment in order to attract media attention.” Including politics.
In the Entertainment culture, the gold standard of value is no longer moral virtue, well-reasoned arguments or even significant accomplishment, but whether or not a person can grab and then hold the public’s attention.
What holds our attention the most? Fear and pleasure. Gabler again: So those elite few who best learn how to manipulate fear and pleasure attain the status of dreams: celebrity.
Think about it. For the most part, this is why today’s candidates are succeeding or failing. They have learned how to manipulate fear and pleasure. Or not.
In the post-debate wrap ups we see reruns, not of the best reasoned policy arguments, but of the best one-liners that make people laugh. Or the most shocking statements. The candidates with the highest poll numbers are those with the greatest celebrity factor.
In today’s postmodern culture thinkers are out. Feelers are in. Speakers with more emotional charge and passion tend to be more entertaining. Emotions are contagious. The candidates that can best project contagious emotions, especially emotions of fear, pleasure and the kind of outrage that resonates with the frustration of voters, are more entertaining and rising in the polls. That and the ability to confound and shock the public.
We are back in the Roman Coliseum with General Maximus as the gladiator who slices off heads with two swords and a flourish and turns to address the wildly cheering crowds, “Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?” He spits in disdain and the crowds cheer louder. He plays the game well, but it’s not his true heart.
Real life is not so much like the movies or TV. In the unfolding story of crafting good legislation, negotiating good budgets, executing strong foreign policy, building good relationships, persuading key players and serving your constituents’ needs the plot moves way too slowly. The people are not nearly as beautiful. The real stars are more often gifted at something other than manipulating fear or pleasure, shock and awe. Do we really want the most gifted entertainer to be the one with their finger on the button?
The way of wisdom directs us to first look at a potential political leader’s character. How well he loves his family. Her reputation. Is she honest? Trustworthy? Does he control his tongue? His temper?
Look at his values. Hopefully a reflection of the king of kings’.
Look at the skill for the job. Can they cast a vision of where we need to go and accurately count the cost of getting there? Do they have a track record of solving problems, good judgment and decisiveness? Will they fight for what is right? Will they break all the “bruised reeds” in the process?
A good and great nation is not seduced by an Entertainer in Chief. It seeks a leader with empathy, wisdom, a servant’s heart, and maybe even, in today’s culture, a certain facility with playing the celebrity game. But Heaven help us if we tune in to be entertained or elect a manipulator at heart.
What are you looking for in a political leader? Please respond in the comments below…