America’s media lead the outrage against Donald Trump — with the exception, that is, of Fox News, which leads the cheering. His surprising ascent to the White House and his sedulous lowering of the presidential dignity are symptoms of the rot in American public life. The intramedia argument is only about where the rot began. The point of consensus is that it started on the other side, with Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon, or with some otherwise forgotten original sinner, like William Jennings Bryan, who Democrats adduce as an exemplar of populism, though usually without mentioning that he stood three times for the Democratic nomination.
As most American media inclines towards an upscale and sentimental “liberalism”, so much American media have condemned Trump as a downmarket sentimentalist, determined to pull down the two pillars of American democracy, legislative procedure and a free press. Yet it is not clear why Donald Trump would want to pursue this Samson-like strategy. He may have the hair for it, but his incessant franchising of his name and licensing of his image suggest that he seeks stardom, not death.
Most of the media, and affluent coastal Democrats as a whole, still struggle to comprehend that there is content to Trump’s style. Some of this is simple snobbery. How, given that we have a gentry class of politicised academics and political analysts, could a man so vulgar have judged the public mood by feel alone? But much of the incomprehension is because Trump emerged from that class’s collective blind spot. Again, his style masks the content. His shoddy appearance and signature quiff seem artless. That, as actors know, is performing at a high level indeed.
The media do not want to acknowledge this artfulness, and perhaps cannot acknowledge it, because it was the media, not Donald Trump, who established artfulness, and the placement of style over content, as qualifications for political life. It was the media, and television in particular, that rewrote the unwritten rules of the democratic process — the rules about what looks right, and which values should be reflected in physical form.
Even before television brought politics into the living room as soap opera, its precursor in public entertainment, the film business, had disgraced itself. No sooner had the talkies got going, than European film makers were straining to dodge the moral questions of fascism and communism and, in many cases, flattering dictators from the aesthetic angle.
Americans believed they were better. At the time, they were. When German and Italian audiences were listening to Hitler and Mussolini, Americans had FDR’s “fireside chats”. Still, democratic and undemocratic politicians alike adopted broadcast media as a way of educating their populations in their preferred virtues. Mussolini sent a radio into every home. Americans already had one in their home.
The balance of power changed in the 1950s. The iconography of public life changed with the rise of Madison Avenue and mass consumption. The television set replaced the radio, and the televisual standard meant that politicians now had to compete with professional actors. It had been possible to have “a face for radio”; it was no longer possible to have bad teeth on American television — or British television, after the rise of the grinning opportunist Tony Blair.
The tipping point was the 1960 election. Notoriously, Richard Nixon made the mistake of campaigning on his record, and neglected to shave his five o’clock shadow before the first debate between presidential candidates. John F. Kennedy was running the first modern election campaign, which is to say, the first in which style was an end to itself. The policy differences were narrower then than they are now; as Ira Still recently argued, today, a person of JFK’s opinions would be a conservative. But the difference in image was decisive. On screen, Nixon, proleptically, looked like a burglar. Kennedy, falsely, looked the picture of youthful vitality.
Barack Obama worked the same dubious magic in the 2008 and 2012 television debates. His opponent in 2008, John McCain, was only a war hero with a lifetime record of service in the air force and Senate. McCain looked old and, thanks to the attentions of his Viet Cong captors, partially disabled. While McCain shuffled around and seemed to have trouble gripping the mike, Obama looked young, healthy and handsome, despite having the thinnest resumé of any candidate in American history.
Kennedy’s candidacy also began the uncoupling of the presidential brain from the presidential mouth. In 1957, he put his name to the book Profiles in Courage, most of which turned out to be written by Ted Sorensen. Similar fictions, notably the myth of Camelot and the loving nature of the Kennedy marriage, were propagated by the shameless Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. After that, it was no longer necessary for a president to write his own speeches, or even to think at all.
Kennedy’s murder cemented the takeover of words by images. The president was shot on film, a kind of martyr to celebrity. The Kennedy White House had cemented the union of politics and show business. This was little more than a cynical recognition of the reality that, if images now drive politics, it was best to stay close to the image makers. Close observers saw that politics could not be the same again. The television script was now driving the stump speech.
In 1972, Jeremy Larner, who written speeches for Eugene McCarthy’s failed run for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination, won an Oscar for a script of The Candidate. In Michael Ritchie’s film, Robert Redford plays a California Democrat who is chosen on the basis of his look, groomed for stardom, and trained in the ways of the smile and the autocue. He wins. “What do we do now?” he asks his speechwriter as he disappears beneath the cameras and microphones.
Larner did not need to give the answer. The Candidate is a film about what television did to politics. Eventually, television would notice what television was doing to the news, with Network (1976) and Broadcast News (1987). It was too late. By the time William Hurt’s charming but ignorant anchor replaces Albert Brooks’s old-time journalist in Broadcast News, an actor was president, and the dark age of cable television was upon us.
Cable news rewarded gladiatorial hostility, and the abuse of motive and character. It ceaselessly edited political narratives to create cliffhangers for the advert and episode breaks, and this meant that it ceaselessly sought and auditioned the kind of politicians willing to take part in the spectacle. Soon, the only people willing to consider a career in politics were those false and vain enough to take part in the spectacle. Reagan and Clinton, both capable of intellectual substance, adapted themselves, and dispensed with as much of their substance as they could.
Television was now reality, and reality television, the great fiction of the age, now ruled politics entirely. Hence the candidacies of Obama and Trump, and the successive presidencies of a stylish amateur without content, and a professional who knows how to mask content in style. Most of the media desperately wanted Obama to win, just as they wanted that other hard-working media amateur Hillary Clinton to win in 2016.
Yet Obama’s victory was not a new dawn for American liberalism. It marked the eclipse of thoughtful, policy-driven liberalism. The Democratic Party has been ideologically hollowed by the pursuit of power, which means the pursuit of celebrity and ratings. The Democratic Party is now riven by the warring collectives of identity politics, whose rhetoric of mutual loathing is ironically compatible with cable news’ appetite for the violent and freakish.
The Republicans were doing no better. In 2012, Mitt Romney had proved that a candidate with the charisma of a broom and none of the usefulness might have won the presidency in the 1950s, but would not win now. In 2016, the media got the candidate they had always wanted. A true professional, with an intuitive grasp of the crowd, good comic timing, and no interest whatsoever in the difference between truth and fiction.
The cable television stations did the hard work of Donald Trump’s campaign, by helping him to give good TV. And now, having promoted and pandered to every worst impulse in human nature for half a century, and having reduced the most important office in the democratic world to a tinsel-crowned reality television spot, the same cable television stations lead the chorus of “What do we do now?”
They know the answer, and will happily give it. As any television executive knows, when the ratings are good, repeat and repeat.