We have the extraordinary good fortune of living in the greatest period in human history.
Most Americans would blithely dismiss that statement even without seeing it as untrue. It’s like being healthy: you just wake up and do your thing. Nobody but a survivor of a near-death experience thinks about waking up and thanking the universe for having done so. It’s first base in the game of taking things for granted.
But look at our political landscape in the America of May, 2016. The two politicians who attract the most attention and the biggest crowds are Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Both of them are nasty, coarse, and shrill — and wildly popular with their fans. Why? Is it because they have a populist platform? Is it because they are seen as “not being afraid to tell it like it is,” because they are disdained by the political establishment? No, I think it is more than this. Something much more mundane.
Think about this: Americans simply don’t have much trust any more. We don’t trust the government. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2016 study of voter sentiment, only 19% of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time”. We don’t trust sports figures — and think of how we used to! Christy Mathewson, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Brooks Robinson, Sandy Koufax: would any mother really worry about leaving her baby with any of these men? The magic is gone from politics, from sports, from schools. There is only one place that Americans now can place their trust.
Entertainment. Movies and music. People don’t want to be lied to by a politician, but they aren’t surprised when their worst fears are confirmed. We don’t want to find out that our favorite team won the Series because all their pitchers were using performance enhancing drugs, but we’re not surprised to find out that that is precisely what has been happening. But we expect entertainment stars to lie to us: that is what they do professionally. If we find out that our favorite actor is a philandering drug addict, it only makes that person more multi-dimensional. We won’t stop seeing his movies because of it: in fact, a morbid curiosity may well drive more of us to a sort of dismal admiration, a funereal fandom.
In the future, then, the people who stand the best chance of being elected to high office are entertainers. The Ronald Reagans, the Donald Trumps. What Reagan did was to explode deficits to unsustainable heights, pay off the Iranian government, funnel illegal weapons to a band of drunken murderers in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and addict Americans to the fiction that we could cut taxes on the rich while increasing overall tax revenue. But this is not what most Americans saw. We saw Reagan the movie actor, the unflappable smile, the idiot who won’t let a rainy day get him down.
What do Americans see in Donald Trump? The short answer is, anything they want to see in him. This is what we do with entertainers: we pour ourselves in to them, we identify with them, because it makes us feel important by association. I’ve heard people tell me that he tells it like it is; that he talks like us; that he is the consummate negotiator because he knows you start off your negotiations with an extreme position, then moderate it; that he is a highly successful businessman, which qualifies him to be President. Of course, all of these assessments are a direct outgrowth of what we already knew about Trump from his frequent encounters with the press over the past 40 years. We think we know who he is because of what we’ve seen on television.
We’re in for some real trouble. We’ve finally morphed into a nation not of dreamers, but of hallucinators.