Perhaps no one who wears a suit to work has done more to earn most people’s loathing of him than Donald Trump.
For a narcissist who resents the fact that he’s not universally worshipped for being the rich outsider who shocked the establishment and became president of the United States, Trump is also a magnificent troll who relishes your hatred if he can’t have your admiration and fealty, as long as you pay attention to his antics.
But there’s a profound difference between a real-life villain and a storybook one. President Trump can only be the latter, because since the 1970s, American party politics has been primarily a mode of mass entertainment. In particular, as Jon Stewart pointed out years ago on The Daily Show, the ballyhooed clash between Democrats and Republicans resembles the staging of professional wrestling.
President Trump is the “heel,” the fake villain whose job is to whip up the crowd with his cartoonish gestures towards evil, so they’ll cheer for the “face,” for the hero who slaps down the villain and reassures the crowd.
The problem with American politics, then, isn’t that the government is largely dysfunctional and out-of-touch with the needs of average Americans, but that there’s no face on the horizon.
If a real government, that is one with the power to run the country, were led by a troop of clowns and grifters, we’d expect the country to promptly collapse. But as odious as Trump’s “presidency” seems, he oddly hasn’t started a war, not even to boost his ratings and rally support from all quarters. Nor has the United States been ruined from top to bottom by the Trump regime, despite the obvious fact that while Trump is legally the president, he’s functionally an entertainer and a con artist.
We’re faced, then, with the paradox that a large, powerful, influential country can evidently be left standing even when led by a clown.
Mystery Solved: The US Government is Powerless
We can solve this paradox somewhat like Sherlock Holmes, by landing on the unlikeliest solution that’s the only one left after the more conventional explanations have been ruled out. In this case, though, we needn’t exert ourselves in investigating the alternatives, since the existence of Trump’s presidency has done us the service of exposing the hollowness of conventional wisdom about twenty-first century American politics.
The solution, then, is that real power in the country mustn’t lie with Democratic or Republican politicians. These politicians aren’t leaders at all, contrary to the pomp and circumstance and to the clichés of punditry and journalism that appear on mainstream news. Thus, functionally speaking, a country can afford for its democratic representatives to be mainly entertainers, without thereby destroying itself.
Of course, some of this is structural: representatives in a democracy aren’t supposed to have absolute power, since that power is reserved for the electorate, whereas in a monarchy or a dictatorship, the kingdom really might rise or fall with the quality of its leader.
But in any society, power must be vested somewhere. The US isn’t a direct democracy, so the voters mean to delegate their authority to their representatives. But the US is also a cheerleader for capitalist enterprise — which has enriched some Americans and led to much technological innovation, but has also had the downside that “special interests” have captured all three branches of the government.
There are effectively two kinds of election in the US, one political and the other economic. In the former, each person gets one vote, an equality that’s supposed to honour Enlightenment values, since the citizens all have equal rights as rational, liberated persons pursuing their happiness. Still, the messiness of American history has discredited or at least tarnished those values. The US was founded as much on slavery, imperialism, and patriarchy as on Enlightenment philosophy.
Moreover, American elections are complicated by gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the cockamamie device of the Electoral College. The latter once apportioned its votes to slaves according to the three-fifths compromise and still gives the Republicans an unfair advantage. This is because Republican voters live mainly in sparsely populated rural areas whose states’ electoral votes are assigned by fiat, thanks to their automatic minimal allotment of House representatives and senators. For example, Wyoming has three electoral votes, which means one for every 195,000 people in its population, whereas California has one for every 712,000 Californians.
So the results of the political elections are already tainted in that they’re not fair or proportional. But these elections are also mooted by the economic ones which occur in the laissez-faire marketplace and which award power to whomever has the most wealth. In those virtual elections which are reinforced every day, Americans vote with their dollars. Here there’s no deference to the Enlightenment ideal of the equal worth of each sovereign person, since one dollar makes for one vote. In the US, billionaires and their courtiers therefore have more much power than average Americans.
Wealthy Americans fund congressional political campaigns, and their lobbyists often write legislation, which the politicians don’t even read before voting on the bill. As The Swamp documentary points out, this dynamic was exacerbated by Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, who changed the congressional system to force the representatives to spend more time begging for money and thus seeking approval from those who dominate the private sector, than solving problems and governing by cooperating or compromising with their colleagues.
Most voters seem to understand their congressional “representatives” don’t represent the average voter as much as the special interests of the richest ten percent, since all midterm elections, beginning in 1974, have had voter turnouts of less than forty percent. Starting in the early twentieth century, turnout in the presidential elections has been mostly in the mid-fifty percent range, due largely to loss of faith in the American electoral system.
Especially on the Republican side and since the John Roberts nomination in 2005, Supreme Court nominees are preselected by wealthy funders of groups like Judicial Crisis Network, the US Chamber of Commerce, and the Koch network, and they’re selected according to their friendliness to the prospect of American plutocracy. The social issues of abortion, religion, gay rights, and the like are distractions to fill airtime for the mass media that can’t cover the economic issues decided by the court, since the media outlets are likewise owned by an oligopoly of big businesses.
The Top-Notch Republican Brand of Entertainment
So that’s why in 2020 the US hasn’t been reduced to a post-apocalyptic wasteland even though its president is manifestly unqualified to be head of the Executive Branch.
Trump didn’t attain that role by accident, mind you, since he’s overqualified to be the country’s Entertainer in Chief. In a sense, all is as it should be: if the government has become a sideshow in an emerging plutocracy, who better to serve as “president” than an infamous buffoon who literally worked in reality TV and onstage for World Wrestling Entertainment, having been inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013?
Republicans have promoted figureheads for president at least since Ronald Reagan, the grinning, smooth-talking actor who played the face rather than the heel. His VP George HW Bush was the last of the Republican leaders who belonged to the prior period, before American politics entered the Age of Entertainment. Bush Sr.’s pragmatic, centrist outlook contrasted sharply with the production values brought to bear by his son, who became president in 2000 as the face you want to have beer with. George W. Bush chose Dick Cheney, the heartless infighter and torture-enthusiast, to play a heel as VP.
John McCain, the war hero, likewise arranged for a well-rounded performance when he played a face in his matchup with Obama in 2008, selecting “white trash” Sarah Palin as his running mate to play a heel. In 2012, Romney the vulture capitalist was effectively cast as the heel but he neglected to lean into the role, running away from the amorality of his former capitalist dealings.
In any case, Trump’s production values trounce those of the former Republican stars. President Trump is as captivating as a train wreck. His “presidency” is ratings gold for the corporate news companies that might have gone bankrupt by now were it not for the Trump bonanza, due to competition from social media and the internet. And Trump is equally beloved by comedians who complain only that the embarrassment of riches has made comedy at Trump’s expense too easy.
Again, the only real problem with Trump’s performance is that there’s no face or hero to restore the country’s dignity and confidence in morality and in the meaningfulness of human life. Robert Mueller was cast in the role but he choked in anticlimactic fashion, producing a lame, lawyerly report on the Trump-Russia connections that found no evidence Trump colluded with Putin as a Russian agent, leaving open the more obvious scenario in which Trump is just a Russian asset or stooge.
Could you ask for better entertainment from a fake government than to have a foreign asset, flagrant malignant narcissist, and consummate train wreck in the Oval Office? Who can turn away? Speaking as a Canadian, I can attest that many Canadians pay at least as much attention to Trump’s political reality TV show as to the Canadian political snoozefest.
The Ambivalence of Democratic Clowns
But again, where’s the “face” of America, the hero to restore the country’s good name in the wake of Trump’s fraud and desecration of the country’s norms and sacred symbols?
Surely we can’t expect heroic displays from an elderly neoliberal Democrat like Joe Biden, when even No Drama Obama, who ran a Christ-like campaign for change after the Bush fiasco in Iraq, disappointed progressives by letting Wall Street off the hook in the 2008 market crash. Bill Clinton provided massive entertainment with his impeachment for the Lewinsky scandal; alas, that came at the end of his presidency, in 1998–1999, prior to which he perfected the dismal art of neoliberal policy triangulation.
Democratic voters looked at the clown car of twenty-nine candidates during the 2020 primaries and discarded the many young faces and fresh perspectives, such as those of Andrew Yang and Pete Buttigieg, until the race came down to Biden versus Bernie, a confused, doddering old man against a crotchety old man.
The trouble is that American liberals still believe they have a functional government on their hands, so they prize a candidate’s expertise more than his or her mere symbolic significance or acting chops. Hillary Clinton, the robotic technocrat was their ideal candidate, and they still haven’t learned from her embarrassing defeat in 2016 that most Americans — the half that don’t vote plus the quarter of the country that vote Republican — understand that their government is for show, that real power in the country lies with the big businesses and billionaires that have captured the government agencies and neutralized the electoral process.
These average Americans don’t expect their politicians to improve their life, let alone to tackle giant problems like the climate crisis or the growing global disenchantment with liberalism and democracy. The parts of the country’s deep state that handle crises are mostly automated, including the military, the courts, and even the health protection agency. That agency failed spectacularly in its response to Covid-19 not so much because of Trump’s galling incompetence, but because American individualism and big businesses captured and sabotaged also the country’s health care industry long before Trump took office.
As indicated by their trolling and inaction at the voting booth, most Americans demand only that their “government” entertain them. Republicans offer superior entertainment to the Democrats’ brand of distractions. This is because Republicans are more shameless and cynical, and are afflicted with toxic masculinity rather than with Democratic-style toxic femininity, the latter being less overt in its potential for villainy. Republicans are the superior liars or salespeople, which makes them better actors.
Conceivably, if Democrats officially adopted critical race theory and cancel culture, and nominated a bona fide “social justice warrior,” that candidate might provide at least a quality diversion as the nation’s heel for a spell. As lopsided as their political entertainment industry is, Americans may look back fondly on the Trump years, as hideous as they were in terms of actual governance. If Democrats are bound to double-cross the public and disappoint as problem-solvers and central planners, is it too much to ask that they do so with a beguiling little song and dance?