Election 2016: Unreality T.V.

Barack Obama has kept his distance from this campaign, but he did intervene last month to remind Americans that they’re not voting to give someone a recording contract: “This is a really serious job. This is not entertainment. This is not a reality show.”

Hillary Clinton likes that line, too, and has used it more pointedly against the former host of The Apprentice: “You can’t say to the head of another nation’s government… if you disagree with them, ’you’re fired!’ That is not the way it works in the real world!”

It’s true, of course—but the rise of Trump reminds us that American politics lost their humble, aldermanic relationship with a simple “real world” a long way back.

Obama’s own victory was telegraphed and televised—the dignified, better-than-human First Black President got screen-tested more than once in Morgan Freeman and Dennis Haysbert. And a Brooklyn-ready media rollout teased an age of “hope” and “change” that the candidate was unable fully to bring about.

The gap between the real and the imagined isn’t a new phenomenon—it’s old as politics itself, and only accelerated by TV. As early as 1960, Norman Mailer read John F. Kennedy aright—not as a job applicant but as an avatar for two Americas, old and new:

this candidate for all his record; his good, sound, conventional liberal record has a patina of that other life, the second American life, the long electric night with the fires of neon leading down the highway to the murmur of jazz.


The author and journalist Ron Suskind is in our studio—he was the one who transcribed a gem of ideology from a secret source in the Bush White House:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Trump may be imperial in that same sense, if Matt Lauer’s botched tackle of the two presidential candidates is anything to go by.

For more on the realm of unreality we’re in, we turn to Veep‘s Frank Rich, and The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum (above), if the age of mass-media politics that began with the glow of Kennedy is ending with the groan of Trump—himself made-for-TV. His unpredictability, his familiar pout, his Lorax coloring and proportions are keeping him in a race and a conversation he might have lost, on the merits, long ago.

To millions of Americans, Trump has some real effects; he represents hope—maybe for boardroom efficiency or a frank simplification of political questions—or a change in atmosphere, away from managed expectations and polite coastal contempt. His may be a dark fantasy, but he sees that politicians, like TV personae real and semi-real, are in the business of fantasy, and that the “show horse” part of the job can’t be so easily shrugged off.

How do we talk about political reality from so deep inside the world of the reality show?

Guest List
Ron Suskind
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist of A Hope in the Unseen and The One Percent Doctrine.
Frank Rich
New York Times columnist and theatre critic, now columnist at New York Magazine and executive producer of Veep.
Emily Nussbaum
Pulitzer Prize-winning television critic for The New Yorker.

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  • Pete Crangle

    Howard Beale. Stand-up guy in the Heart of our Darkness

    “And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.” — Genesis, Chapter 4, KJV

    I try to steer my life between the sacred and the profane. Sometimes, I tilt too much in one direction, and I find my shadow taking me out for a stroll. What follows is a stroll through the profane. Given this election cycle, it’s a rational response. When I finished writing this, I put my shadow back into its Urn. We both feel better for it.

    Among the blizzard of media ephemera, I am still contemplating a campaign speech made by Candidate Drumpf, in August, 2016. I sit in the cheap seats, where the old wooden bleachers are drenched in murderous heat by day, and buffeted by unmerciful winds by night. It is from this perspective that I follow events — slowly. I think about them slowly. I turn them over and examine them slowly. I flush them into selective amnesia slowly. For the most part, I ignore the twitter sandbox, and its limitation of a mandated one hundred forty characters. It moves fast. Speed, PR, and amnesia are its destination. I move slowly. Velocity and sales are not where I’m going.

    I grind my axes slowly. I take a slow, short bus in order to get to the cheap seats to watch the simulacrum called “the media” — both corporate and non-corporate venues. To keep the ride entertaining, I pump into my earbuds the hobgoblin of my little mind. Slowly, I approach the Tweedledee-Tweedledum limits of an analysis for the events that pass through our theatre of the absurd. Give me a value for Tweedledee, and I’ll get you Tweedledum close to something; albeit slowly.

    I have noticed that there are gaps, logical, gaping holes, that are exist within the political-economy, and embraced by the spectators and cogs that keep it running. So forgive me, or don’t, whatever, as I point out the following: on a regular basis the POTUS meets with his security team, an anonymous death squad in well-tailored suits, to go over what is called in the spook trades, a Kill List. Or, a Disposition Matrix, if you prefer bureaucratic word obfuscation hatched by professional lexicon hacks. The president and his team ruminate over this list, and consider who can and should be executed, and who cannot or should not be executed.

    Apparently, they place various details about the ‘targets’ on dimensions suitable for a baseball card. This must be the appropriate format to ponder such potent, kingly considerations. Kings are busy, and thus, they find it necessary for weighty matters to be stripped down to their essence. Hence, baseball card dimensions tailor themselves to just such a majestic task. I admit, this is an odd piece of infotainment to zoom in upon, but it does say *something* about the consideration and scope of decision making for such a lethal, extra-constitutional enterprise.

    It just so happens that on this kill list there have been American citizens. Tut, tut, tut. That doesn’t sound sporting or constitutional, does it? Well, constitutional reliquary notwithstanding, it turns out, American citizens have been ordered to be executed by extrajudicial fiat by the executive branch, with no qualitative transparency of due process of law. Just quiet, cold blooded murder at the King’s pleasure. Befitting that part of the country that likes its homicide done quietly so it can keep on with important matters without interruption. Such as, ignoring its inbred, homicidal proclivities. Or, ignoring the gold standard of the separation of powers, or an informed, consensual citizenry — quaint ideas in the era of a post-unitary executive that devours the bill of rights to play with its War on Terror boogeyman.

    The current Imperial Manager runs a quiet shop. As such, there is no half-baked boasting from the bully pulpit. No blustered opining at political rallies. No media feathers ruffled or provoked into the confusing activity of having to actually … think & work. The policy discourse has all the intellectual heat of a Charlie Rose Q & A session. Which is the temperature most citizens prefer matters of existential import that involve some vague persona entangled in our “War On …” So no, there is none of the unseemly, carnival of inarticulate mayhem you hear at a Drumpf rally and its reportage. None of that is to be found within the current office of the Imperial Manager. It’s all very professional death squad behavior. And besides, who really cares about this Disposition Matrix? These executed citizens weren’t candidates for president. Weren’t of Euro-ethnic Caucasian ancestry. Didn’t have WASPy sounding names. So, who the fuck cares? Fuck ’em. And the Bill of Rights, too. Amirite?

    Lines have been crossed. Lines! Crossed!

    Candidate Drumpf has his own Disposition Matrix. We can presume that Candidate Clinton is on it, perhaps at the top. I would guess President Obama is on it, too. We have some insight into this because Candidate Drumpf wags his tongue, finger bangs the air swirling around his maw of grandiosity, and makes a series of jabbering noises that confirms he keeps such a list — though one can expect, given the man’s temperament, it’s a fairly impromptu list, with a revolving door of enemies entering and exiting it, depending upon circumstances that are of his ad hoc concern. Moreover, Drumpf invites random help to fulfill its execution — a new Reality TeeVee show, perhaps? Drumpf rallies aren’t merely for politicking, they are venues that offer the potential for crowd sourced contract killing (no contract implied, of course). And this has stirred passions far and wide.

    Let’s be generous with Citizen Drumpf and use some Tweedledee parsing of his bullshit and apply more time and acumen than it deserves: In an August 2016 speech in Wilmington, NC, Mr. Drumpf indicated that it may be imperative and/or opportunistic for someone from the NRA voting bloc, the lunatic fringe that clings to Amendment Two — it’s our rod & our staff — to whack, grease, ice, off, end, croak, stiff, burn, dust, hit, pop, eliminate, terminate, liquidate, ventilate, nullify, neutralize, assassinate, dispatch, finish off, bump off, polish off, knock off, snuff out, take out, rub out, blow away, mow down, shoot down, cut down, put down, cut to pieces, do in, do away with, dispose of, take care of, pull the plug, wax, waste, smoke, and conclude, one Citizen Clinton.

    Oh my, the humanity. Pandering to the bottom feeder, law-and-order, execution happy Guns & God voting bloc. A request for the one way ticket to Belize. Outfit her with the ol’ cement overcoat, so she can sleep with the fishes, with extreme prejudice. My, my. What an outrage. Amirite?

    Or, maybe Candidate Drumpf was simply pining away for the heady work of a GOTV effort among the NRA voting bloc to work its high pressure mojo upon a spineless legislature? The Drumpf jabbering slices a variety of ways, but given the incendiary style of the author, I’m going with crowd sourced murder for hire. Though, let’s not kid ourselves, it’s third party killing as volunteerism. You couldn’t squeeze a nickle out of Drumpf’s tightfisted ass to pay for work completed on his behalf. With Drumpf, one must get ahead of the money, if one wants to be paid for work completed.

    Here’s a slightly Tweedledum parsing: he meant it multi-directionally, depending upon audience, context, and opportunity for his self-aggrandizement. This is part of Drumpf’s proprietary sui generis: his babblings usually serve a multi-use purpose, and none of it is sprinkled with sunshine lollipops and rainbows. (RIP Lesley Gore)

    Drumpf’s solicitation, correction: ‘outburst’, is the hidden orthodoxy that beats in the American heart. It has beat this way since it existed as a mere confederation of backwater, genocidal colonies. American hospitality has always served itself up at the end of a sword or at the end of a bullet. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, are the fang and claw that rings its liberty bell. America, stands its ground. Always. Don’t believe it? Observe the grotesque display going on in the Dakota Access Pipeline struggle. It’s an old struggle that won’t die. Or, any number of venues where civilians are gunned downed by state security.

    “Guns don’t kill people, the government does” — Dale Gribble, “King of the Hill.”

    Drumpf puts in front of us what politicians and the deep state actually do — even a fictional, cartoon character named ‘Dale Gribble’ understood this years ago. The blowback for Drumpf’s egregious rhetorical behavior is outrage from polite society. A polite society that exists within a brutal Empire that wraps itself in an endless Imperial Project. The culture is being served up a dose of ‘look in the mirror and ignore what you see’.

    Drumpf shows American culture for what it actually is, and for what it actually does; that is, it engages in cheap, savage, primitive violence without due process of law. When push comes to shove, the US organizes itself around the principle of law of the jungle, survival of the culturally fittest. It’s the stuff of war lords, except in the case of US policy, it has a global reach for unintended consequences. Hegemonies countenance no challengers to their throne. At the outer regions of our Imperial Project, one can observe this, first hand. As for the rule of law? There are legal squads that exist to figure out ways to enforce the law of the jungle, and still maintain the patina of legitimacy for a sleepy laity. Harvard, Georgetown, etc, are excellent training grounds.

    Drumpf broke yet another dog whistle, and the kangaroo court of public opinion went squealing and howling about it; squealing and howling that bounced off the rafters, whilst his poll numbers took a dump. Polite society doesn’t want to see this sort of thing. That belongs at the nagging outer regions of Empire. It’s what the help does, and no one goes downstairs to watch what they’re up to — ever. How often is extraordinary rendition and harsh interrogation pumped into our media stream, to be watched prime time? It’s an abstraction conducted by the help, without the texture of reality, or legal transparency — y’know, national security, and all that. We pretend to ignore the help, and they pretend to follow the rule of law. It’s a time honored, well understood dynamic. It keeps the malls of our minds humming productively.

    But surely I’m not suggesting I suffer from this lack of self-examination? I might, but that’s irrelevant. Or, that ‘normal’ not batshit citizens who opine about reality from a centrist perch lack this sort of self-examination? I might, but that’s irrelevant. Perhaps, this ‘outburst’ is yet another Drumpf character flaw or psychological malaprop? It might be, but that’s irrelevant. Perhaps, it’s a Republican problem, an indication of how far the conservative right has gone off the rails and landed in the cul-de-sac of morbidity, a sort of violent gasp at the moments preceding a death rattle? It might be, but that’s irrelevant. Perhaps, this is an example of nativist and/or misogynistic rage trying to complete itself? It might be, but that’s irrelevant. Or maybe, we should consider that The Overton Window is simply stuck in the mud at the bottom of Dipshit Gulch … next to the roadkill of Godwin’s Law? It might be, but that too is irrelevant.

    What is relevant is to observe the outrage at an open appeal for pro-Bono murder. This is a nearly textbook example of a collective shadow in play; actually, two collective shadows are operating here, unified by their mutual repulsion, and an interior hide-and-seek that works at both the level of the individual, and the tribe. The outrage is driven not from hearing an appeal for murder, that is the distraction. No, the outrage is in having to accept that this is part of who we are, all of us, not some fringe population that gathers itself in Old Jim Crow southern enclaves. Drumpf has opened up an opportunity to examine who we are, and what we do. But instead of self-examination, doing an inventory of moral and ethical culpability, we ‘otherize’ it as a Drumpf and GOP problem with its base of bible thumping, knuckle dragging, mouth breathing, Neo-Confederate fanatics. Wrong. His opponent, and the current president, like previous office holders, have ordered murder, or advocated for it, with impunity. In some cases, targeting citizens of the United States of America. Without due process of law. A country of laws? Not when push comes to shove.

    But really, who has time for such a moral inventory? There’s an election on. We The People are electing the next Imperial Manager. The stakes of Empire are very high. Amirite?

    And so, with no apology solicited or necessary, I’m saying: No, that’s wrong. This is the heart of the American character realized by our government since before it was a formal government: If We The People don’t like something, and We The People don’t like certain somebodies involved in that something, We The People kill them or disappear them, toss the bodies, call it rule of law, and declare it another victory for the great American project, an experiment in democracy. This is how the road is paved to that magical city on a hill.

    We have all participated in this, more or less. You can’t live a block away from 1940s Bergen-Belsen and then claim: I had no idea what was going on in that place. We are all living a block within Bergen-Belsen now. Drumpf merely exposes the lie and delusion. History is gonna bust our asses across that rock of willful ignorance. Votes for Democratic leadership ain’t gonna save you, or me, from that fate. Assuaging the guilt, the lesser of all evils, the means to an end, are gonna sound exactly like what they are in the court of history: placating, escapist, hollow platitudes. And don’t think third party voting, or blanking out, is gonna exempt one from history’s judgment seat. History is gonna indict all us.

    But really, who gives a damn about legacy? We’ll all be long gone? The future, if there is one, will have to take care of itself. When our moment came, ours did? Besides, it’s Drumpf … pure banality … pure evil … pure derp … pure dangerous dipshittery. There’s an election on. Who has time for navel gazing? We’re electing the next Imperial Manger. The world is a dangerous place, full of dangerous demagogues. Who has time for moral or ethical accountability? That’s for chumps. This isn’t cricket or a board game. Countries are not moral entities, they’re expressions of tribal self-interest and power. Amirite?

    The Unknown Known

    At the core of America is American exceptionalism. It marches lockstep with Democratic leadership that heads up its private, professional party. It marches lockstep with Republican leadership that heads up its private, professional party. The corporate media is fully embedded within it, and calls the propaganda tune. The deep state loves it. Shareholders love it. The market loves it. The folie a deux love it. Hellfire missiles love it. What’s not to love?

    American exceptionalism permeates with its odor. They smelled it at Wounded Knee. They smelled at Sitting Bull’s house. They smelled in Fallujah, Iraq. They smell it in Ferguson, MO. They smell it in Baltimore, MD. They smell in Newtown, CT. You can smell it everywhere. The stink pervades itself among everything. Always has. There are US citizens who have successfully exported death, such as, I dunno, Richard Cheney, Richard Zuley, Henry Kissinger, Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, General Westmoreland, General McCaffrey, Colonel Steele, et al. who are testaments of this stench. It’s a stench that trickles down and bubbles up. So, let’s not forget the little people who have imported death, such as, I dunno, Richard Zuley, Darren Wilson, Micah Xavier Johnson, Timothy Loehmann, Gavin Long, George Zimmerman, Michael Slager, Maurice Clemmons, Michael David Dunn, Dylann Roof, Jason Van Dyke, Omar Mateen, and the Fishkill Prison Beat Up Squad who foul us good folks with their human waste. It’s everywhere, it’s on us too, from the inside it moves outward.

    No one loves a proselytizing. Except when it’s directed towards the otherized, collective shadow. So, I can fuck off just about now. Amirite?

    Well, the mob has been jolted out of its nap. The polling data has been confirming it. It has been promulgated that Drumpf has crossed a line for which there is no return. Crossed a line? Which line? There are so many. Forget about Drumpf. He didn’t invent the lines, nor their crossing. How many lines has the United States crossed? How much blood is soaked into its historical character. Don’t ask me? Consult a North American tribal person(s). Or, a person of color with slave ancestry. A prisoner who passed through Abu Ghraib. Or, a woman who is victimized by domestic violence. Or, people who live in strange places on a Risk board: say, a Vietnamese person. Or, a Cambodian. Or, a Laotian, Or, a Korean. Or, a Grenadian. Or, a Panamanian. Or, a Filipino. Or, an Iraqi. Or, a Yemeni … let me stop the typing there. It’s. A. Long. Long. List. With literally millions of former human beings who have succumbed to US death squads. Oh, the euphemism: Collateral Damage. An actuarial term to describe flesh & blood destroyed by a government run as a Murder, Inc. So as to not upset us. To keep the malls of our minds humming along, productively.

    “Democracy is messy” — Donald Rumsfeld, Former Secretary of Defense

    Crossed lines? Sure. Drumpf crossed a line. He crossed the line of exposing what our government does, what We the People do to adversaries we find intolerable. He has aired out another dirty, little secret. Though unlike neophyte Drumpf, We the People use terms of state craft for our death squading, and we always keep the work in-house or outsourced to reliably, monstrous third parties: regime change, regime decapitation, deposing a leader, targeted assignation, overthrow, coup d’etat, intervention, nation building, covert operations, rollback, extraordinary rendition, etc. We got it covered. Campaign rallies are small-ball and inefficient.

    So please. Let’s quit being suckers of the great surprise for the ratings spectacle. Don’t worry about crossing any lines. Go vote for the turd sandwich we’ve served up for ourselves. Chew it liberally, swallow it completely, and then complete the exercise we’ve been trained for: Go back to sleep. Enjoy your nap, America. Until we serve ourselves up the next turd sandwich we call an election. Candidate Drumpf is just a snooze alarm that will eventually be muted by the electorate or history’s unmerciful balancing act; though it may come in the wake of a lot of carnage.

    Drumpf shows the American character in all its naked brutality and cruelty. It’s a Thanatos horror show. Always has been. And that is what is contained within the blizzard of outrage — outrage that is blind to the core of its very character. Before signing off, let’s all wave and give a shout out to Fidel Castro. August 13th was his birthday. He’s outlived quite a few US presidents and death squad bunglings. Viva La Revolución! And remember, always remember: The horror! The Effing horror! … Exterminate all the brutes! This is what makes an Empire thrive unto its demise.

  • Potter

    “the email thing” … ” I don’t know what’s up with that”…..

    Liar,Narcissist, Racist. These Suburban Women Really Don’t Like Trump BUT….

    “Some of these voters also made it clear that their support for Clinton is equivocal, which suggests Trump might have had a shot at them. There were multiple concerns about her aired: One referenced “the email thing,” adding: “I don’t know what’s up with that.” One vaguely referenced the aura of “scandal” around Clinton, without apparent knowledge of the specifics. One questioned whether her marriage to Bill Clinton was rooted in political convenience, adding that this made her wonder whether she is being “sincere” in other areas.”

  • Potter

    Emily Nussbaum gives an excellent review of TV shows, and the case as “esperanto” about which I know nothing. “Power is power” And then there is power over emotions, over minds, over others, over one’s self, one’s sensibilities. There is definitely a light versus dark happening. It’s obvious the show is coming from trying to get to the light from what is already dark:

    josh marshall:

    Various racist beliefs have also grown more prevalent among Republicans. Trump is damaging and corrupting who we are. It didn’t start with him but he’s taking it national, he’s taken it mainstream.

    Ron Suskind connected some dots for me personally. I could not figure out why I kept thinking of Arthur Godfrey past my disgust while watching and listening to Trump. trying to figure him out. It was apparent that he was mentally unfit for this office he seeks ( presumably) quite awhile ago. Godfrey was of the original television personalities, the original reality TV. That was when TV was new. It was practically all occurring as we watched. You could hear the stage hands and cameramen in the background, sometimes laughing hysterically. You knew they were there. Sometimes a cameraman would even turn the lens on the crew. Godfrey just reeled if off with confidence taking for granted that you were with him. His innate self- assurance made you with him, in his world. We tuned to be a part of it. Wikipedia has an entry on reality TV that gives this history or early live TV. It mentions Godfrey along with many other others as the progenitors of reality TV. Godfrey’s daughter was or is actually involved in the more recent reality TV. Johnny Carson took it to late night.

    I can understand attraction to Trump on that level. But we are not in a reality TV show, which is not really reality. Trump, in order to gain attention that he needs (I doubt the service he wishes to give) gives permission to hate, to lie: to be racist, misogynistic, ignorant and unthinking. He uses his innate learned and practiced “reality” talents to gain attention power. Suskind marvels, as we all can, at as his ability to “occur”, to pull it out of his head unscripted. This occurs on the platform Republicans have been building. The purpose is self-serving and evil (Suskind uses the word diabolical) while the party loyalists,corrupted, tag along. I don’t think the antidote to this is for Hillary Clinton to be more ”real”. She’s already, as she is slipping, getting it. She has to be smarter and stronger while appealing to a latent sobriety in those still open to it and her. She has to make Trump look small, pull the curtain back fully on the Wizard of Oz pushing all those buttons.

    Thank you so much for the Norman Mailer link… and the show (as ever).

  • jim

    I am very disappointed the Open Source just aired an hour of “election 2016” and Stein was not mentioned at all (Bernie Sanders was mentioned once). The establishment media acts like there are two options only which is a huge disservice to society. The US is “locked” into a two party monopoly in which it is possible to argue that one is better than the other instead of sharing ideas about progress. Societies progress when ideas are shared and refined and people govern based on principles. Also we need a different voting system, as Gov. Dean prescribes ranked voting would be a more fair way of determining the chosen leader.

    • Floyd C. Wilkes

      We need a voting system based on blockchain technology. It would bring integrity and trust to electronic voting.

    • Mark

      Bernie is a has been at best, Jill is a never was; no mention as they are irrelevant.

      • Potter

        Bernie Sanders had a large enthusiastic younger voter following. Hillary Clinton does not.

        Gary Johnson looks like a spoiler with regard to young voters: any change and not Trump.


        Sanders, hardly a has-been, might be doing better than Clinton at this point as the polls suggested months ago. But he’s out there campaigning for Clinton saying that it’s either Clinton or Trump and there is no comparison regarding fitness.

        Beyond that Sanders managed to have a big effect on the Democratic platform and agenda. He made a huge contribution in other ways, not least by showing campaigns can be financed by the people as opposed to corporate interests.

        Hardly a has-been or irrelevant.

  • mfidelman

    Very insightful. Very scary.

    I was a little surprised that nobody touched on Bernie Sanders, the way that he also connected to voters, in a very different way than Trump; and his use of social media as a primary way of reaching people.

  • bunchabologna

    Ok, Suskind terrifies me. I still don’t understand, he says all of Trump’s moves on TV make him appealing and charismatic. I agree on the essence of the traits Trump is using. Except that the impact has entirely opposite effect on me. He comes across as a man of no substance, of bluster, indifference, a bully, a panderer, dismissive etc. And I am not the only one. So while Susskind is right in identifying a unique appeal to Trump’s televisual qualities he seems to entirely miss the source and rationale for that appeal. It seems to me there must be difference in the outlook of the vessels to which the reality TV liquid of Trump is poured into. Something different about the ideas, preconceptions, outlook, sense of self, of the people watching to generate such disparate reactions to the same ‘reality’.