With the first GOP presidential debate happening this week, the 2016 primary season is well under way. And thanks to the addition of the debate’s wild-card frontrunner, the whole thing feels even more like a reality show than usual.
Though we tend to think of presidential elections as something handed down in stone tablets straight from the Founding Fathers, the primaries — where various politicians and interlopers like Trump seek votes from delegates in states like Iowa and New Hampshire to secure their party’s nomination — is actually a relatively new phenomenon.
As recounted recently by Doris Kearns Goodwin in her final Daily Show interview with John Stewart, the first presidential primary actually occurred in the run-up to the 1912 election. It probably won’t shock anyone familiar with American politics that even the first primary was immediately ill-tempered, mean-spirited and would ultimately destroy the long-time friendship of two of America’s great presidents.
Teddy Roosevelt, upon the end of his second term as president, stepped down (there were no term limits then) and passed the baton on to his Secretary of War, William Howard Taft. Almost immediately, Teddy found himself unhappy riding in the passenger’s seat. For the next cycle, he challenged his long-time friend for the presidency, despite Taft being both the sitting president and a fellow Republican.
The campaigns turned ugly quickly. Taft accused Teddy of being an egomaniac, and Roosevelt for his part called Taft a “Puzzlewit” and a “Fathead” (because, you know, Taft was fat). The end result was a victory for Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
Given this somewhat dubious history, it’s no surprise that our current election has devolved to the point where Donald Trump is throwing crass, verbal bombs, questioning the war hero status of one sitting senator and giving out the cell number of another potential rival. Even if Roosevelt and Taft had set us off on a better path, after more than three decades of 24-hour news, and with the emergence of a “click-bait” Internet as a primary news source, is it surprising that a man most Americans know for his role on a reality show has become a serious challenger for the White House?
Our politics, after all, has become a reality TV series of its own that tops any stunts the producers of Survivor deliver. It is worth noting that participation in the first GOP debate is limited to only the top 10 candidates, with national polls determining who makes it to the next stage and who is voted off.… Seems familiar. So Rand Paul takes a chainsaw to the tax code, Lindsay Graham smashes his phone and Rick Perry issues challenges based on feats of strength.
It’s easy to shrug all this off and simply say, “Politics has ever been thus.” The 2012 election featured its share of lunacy with moon bases, “Uzbeke-bekestan,” a talking chair, and binders full of women. 2008 had the Sarah Palin sideshow, but there is undeniably something different about this primary, and for that the media, and indeed the American public, needs to take a healthy portion of the blame.
From the media’s point of view, Trump (and the various attempts at one-upmanship by his GOP competitors) has revitalized this primary season for an audience already bored with the tediously long process and the seemingly inevitable Bush vs. Clinton election. Increasingly, as younger and even middle-aged viewers have turned away from the Fox/MSNBC/CNN wars, the networks have become desperate for spectacle and bravado, something to pull attention away from the endless rounds of Keyboard Cat, twerking videos, Twitter feuds, Life Hacks, SquadGoals and lip-sync battles. And Trump, ever the pantomime villain, fills that role nicely.
At first, it did seem that Trump’s candidacy, surely the powder keg of this round of insanity, would be something like Hermain Cain’s — an alleged straight shooter with a business background that people would stop taking seriously when the abundant holes in his logic became clear. As of yet that hasn’t happened—probably because Trump, unlike Cain, has not offered a specific policy or program. Trump’s momentum is starting to outlive “flash-in-the-pan” status, and only his supporters (and schadenfreude-loving Dems) consider that a good thing.
Trump’s success (and in a milder, more thoughtful way, that of Bernie Sanders) also speaks to a frustration within the American public with the way politicians have been talking to us for the better part of two decades. From “Slick Willy” Clinton to George W. Bush’s truthiness, presidents have become masters of evasion and Orwellian double-speak. Politicians have strived to appeal to the masses by offending as little as possible and committing to absolutely nothing.
Look no further than the reaction to Hillary Clinton’s recent attempt to dodge a question about the Keystone XL Pipeline for an example of an American public that just wants to know what our potential leaders actually think. Language in politics has been reduced to sloganeering when it serves a purpose and intentionally meaningless posturing otherwise.
Trump has mastered this game. On NBC’s The Apprentice, Trump was an avatar of ruthless American capitalism, a blunt pragmatist with active hostility towards empathy. With his little cobra hand gesture, he managed to turn two words that usually comes with serious psychological distress (“You’re fired!) into a snappy pop cultural catchphrase.
For some this is exactly the sort of leader this country needs — someone who shoots from the hip and asks questions later, if ever. Never mind that Trump’s role on the show was an act of pantomime villainy on par with Simon Cowell or Lex Luthor. He offers simple (if totally offensive and entirely impractical) solutions for those who view the world simply. It’s worth noting that his most infamous statement was not about Mexicans coming to steal your job. They were coming to rape and kill. He deals not in reality, but in collective nightmares.
And so, as Trump and the other leading GOP candidates take their places on Aug. 6 to participate in the most recent round of The Bachelor…er, sorry, the first GOP debate…an event that had it been held months ago would have been a fiesta of evasive verbal tap dancing could very well be the GOP’s own Thunderdome. Even those on the other side of the fence must realize that in the long run, this is not a healthy way to run a democracy.