There’s this scene at the end of the movie of The Truman Show where Jim Carrey, who plays the unwitting star of a reality show about his life, finally figures out that none of it is real. Like the voice of God speaking out of the “sky,” The Truman Show producer tries to persuade him to stay, “You were real,”…that’s what made you so good to watch.”
Truman/Carrey pauses at the foot of a stair case leading up and out of the giant dome of his set, then takes his final bow and makes his exit. The millions who have watched him since he was a toddler explode into cheers, hi-fives and laughter. In the control room the order is given, “Cease transmission.” All the TV sets go to crackling “snow.”
Two security guys eating pizza look at each other. “What else is on?” asks one.
“Yeah let’s see what else is on.”
“Where’s the TV Guide?”
And the credits roll.
Because the show is over. Transmission has ceased. Time to change the channel. Those of us who have followed the 2016 Great Republican Presidential Race Reality Show find ourselves in the same place. Some breathless with the thrill of victory. Others incredulous over sixteen defeats. Millions of us a bit deflated that the primary “show” is over.
Many of us are trying to parse how such a promising field with so many good candidates has ended with the choice shaping up before us.
One big reason, I think, has much to do with how we seem to have reached a cultural tipping point: a candidate’s ability to entertain us is critical to his or her success. This is different than a candidate’s ability to inspire us. When Ronald Reagan, a professional actor, ran for president his acting skills helped him inspire voters and convey sturdy policy substance (see the clip below).
But we’ve come to a point with Donald Trump that “entertainment has conquered reality.’ When Wisconsin governor Scott Walker was one of the first strong hopefuls to drop out of the race I wrote this back in September:
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 re-emerge 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 I think, 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. (The point that VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer hilariously makes in this video:)
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 seeks a leader with strength clothed in 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 in Chief.—September 29, 2015
Over seven months later, here we may well be. Heaven help us.
If he is elected, may God surround Donald Trump with wise, steady counselors and incline his heart to listen.
May he show grace to him, as he showed grace to King Saul of Israel. Even though the Israelites rejected God as their king, God told Samuel, “Obey their voice and make them a king.” Saul was anointed king in response to a populist outcry. God even gave him “another heart” and turned him into “another man” who would lead the Israelites to great victories over their enemies for years.
But Saul had this tendency to set aside the voice of God because he listened to the voice of the people. He was really dialed in to the polls. Things did not end well for him. Yet he set the stage for King David to come to the throne. God can redeem anything.