On October 11th, The New York Times featured an article on its website and, with it, unintentionally declared television to be dead. The article, written by Mark Leibovich for the Times’ magazine, bore no real title, only a quote: “‘I’m the Last Thing Standing Between You and the Apocalypse.’” The stark letters were set against a dark background and flanked by Clinton’s silhouette, for ultimate dramatic effect. The theatrics worked; from her coiffed, blonde bob to the dramatic one-liner, Clinton was a dead-ringer for House of Cards’ Claire Underwood.
The surrealism surrounding this election season—part media circus, part wrestling match—have made clear that the 2016 Election is not merely politics as usual. Rather, 2016 reads as dystopia. The ‘fourth wall’ was, at a different time, broken frequently by Frank Underwood, much to the delight of House of Cards’ viewers. Now, the once-distinct realms of fiction and reality have been forced onto the same plane and shoved down our throats as some disgusting yet strangely-addictive political McFlurry. We can’t escape it. And we don’t really want to—I can’t be the only one who clamors to open The New York Times before having coffee, brushing my teeth, hell, getting out of bed in order to read the latest act of transgression committed by either candidate for the most powerful position in the world. I meet the daily news both awe-filled and aghast. Is this masochism? I wonder, before diving into the twelve articles I inevitably have tabbed. Tabbed because there is so much to read, I am overwhelmed. Tabbed because I’m not completely sure if I really want to know what Trump tweeted or Hillary e-mailed. Tabbed because I know no article will address the issues I really care about (for example, how the candidates plan to combat police violence or prison reform), but I still hold out hope.
Instead of the bleak reality of Detroit, however, the news is filled with a cacophony of talking heads, one of which spews liberal talking points that we have become numb to, the other of which expels a ceaseless stream of misogyny, racism, and xenophobia. At play seems to be a war, communicated and dramatized by various media outlets, between “Good” and “Evil.” Between function and disorder. Between “You” and the “Apocalypse.” It’s a classic. Cancel your Netflix subscription—Tarrantino couldn’t write this stuff.
House of Cards, The West Wing, Captain America. I would argue that all of these works of film or television make for a more believable, more readable history than our shocking and gruesome political reality. What I worry about, though, is that the rhetoric-violence of this campaign (pouring not only from Trump’s mouth or keyboard but also by his bigoted campaign team and supporters), is having a normalizing effect upon this Theater of the Absurd. What was most shocking about the now-infamous tape of Donald Trump and Billy Bush is how frighteningly believable it all was. Of course Trump bragged about sexually assaulting a perhaps infinite amount of women. Of course he did—it’s Trump. The horror is not just found within these acts themselves. It is also found within the seemingly endless inundation of them all. Each day there is something new and disastrous uncovered by a journalist or wiki-leaks regarding one of our potential presidents. Each day there is a new “Grab ‘em by the P-” tape.
Have you ever noticed how the longer one plays, say, Call of Duty, the longer one can go without batting an eye at simulated mass-killings? It’s kind of like that. I’ve transformed into a version of my sixteen-year old brother by paying attention to this news cycle, and I’m not okay with that. Violence should never be normalized, and we deserve more than politics that are offensive, unbelievable, and ineffective.
The surreality of this election should come as no surprise. Trump’s entrance into the political arena was built upon conspiratory, ludicrous, and offensive “Birther” claims. And while, at the time, Trump’s Birther campaign was written off by the Left as offensive yet non-serious, today less than a third of Republicans will admit that President Obama was born on U.S. soil.
Hopefully we can designate Trump’s latest fiction (his childish assertions that the election has already been rigged) plus his “Birther Movement” as ludicrous bookends to an even more ludicrous political run. This is a man, after all, whose idea of transparency does not involve revealing his health records or tax returns but, rather, appearing on daytime TV so that Dr. Oz can assure the world that Trump’s health is perfect (and this is coming from the non-“Crooked” candidate). The New York Times designates Dr. Oz’s confirmation as “placebo-transparency,” and, frankly, this entire election has felt like a “placebo” for what was once a democratic process.
Beyond Trump’s allegations that the election has been rigged before it really even began—his latest conspiracy theory that speaks to the candidate’s own deep-seated misogyny, immaturity, hotheadedness, narcissism, insecurity, and plethora of complexes—lies the heart of the matter: the world of politics and of entertainment have merged into one strange, explosive, and toxic vessel. Perhaps, on a certain level, the model of politics-as-entertainment is old news. Before C-SPAN, Roosevelt gave his “Fireside Chats.” But never before have the characters been so cartoonish while the stakes are so high. Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, said it best in her speech given at the Creative Time Summit in D.C. last weekend: “We are deciding between a Fascist and an Imperialist.”
Demographically, these larger-than-life candidates (figures who constantly go viral and constantly mediate our daily existences through memes, gifs, and videos), are incredibly similar: they are both New Yorkers and they are both capitalists. They golf the same courses and attend the same weddings. But, through the dramatics of media, these former-pals have become more than polarized—they are now the ultimate symbols of “Good” and “Evil” in American political and popular culture. With this new symbolic language of power and morality, however, comes the collapse of the former signifying chain of political and cultural discourses. What we used to understand as “Good T.V.”—where clear lines were drawn between the “good guys” and “bad guys,” what Frank Underwood was to Washington as Gordon Gekko was to Wall Street in terms of corruption, where we went to distract ourselves when we needed a break from our studies or the news—has collapsed. The Frank Underwoods and the Gordon Gekkos are running for office, and I doubt Kevin Spacey would be able to stomach a table read of what has transpired. I for one cannot. While I now no longer need a Netflix subscription, I’m not sure if I still want my New York Times sub either.