That’s Entertainment: Amusing Ourselves to Death in the Age of Trump

Photo Source Francisco Anzola | CC BY 2.0

If the masses want bread and circuses, we give them bread and circuses. If they want witch-hunts, bear-baitings, kinky sex, Inquisitions, burning crosses, scapegoats, trivia and persiflage – we give it to them. Keep them entertained and they’ll never hear the whistle of the executioner’s axe.

– Harlan Ellison1

Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. Omarosa Manigault Newman’s UnhingedBob Woodward’s Fear. Each of these works could stand as unofficial non-fiction sequels to Night of Camp DavidFletcher Knebel’s 1965 political thriller about a mentally unstable American president. Each has confirmed things we have known about Donald Trump, even before he slimed his way into the Oval Office.

Stripped of his orange veneer, Trump remains what he has always been: the peevish poster child for white privilege. Bullish, boorish, incompetent, misogynistic, a pathological liar and self-confessed pussy grabber, Trump has somehow managed to get away with a shopping list of indiscretions that had they been done by Obama would have been denounced and possibly invited impeachment. Indeed, not only does Trump lack his predecessor’s integrity and cognitive and emotional intelligence, his deficits were known by the electorate who gave him an electoral college victory. And while a majority of Americans voted for Hillary Clinton, a flawed candidate in her own right, enough of them fatefully chose an inept, stridently hysterical white man over a competent, experienced but corporately corrupt white woman. Sadly, these were the only two choices available – or at least that was what the media and political pundits from both parties incessantly told us.

It is easy and disingenuous to see Trump – a reality-challenged reality show host, slumlord confidant, billionaire bloviator, and crypto “bad мужчина”– as the problem. After all, the deluded hive-minded Americans who voted for him were well aware of his flaws; they were clearly on display, indeed flaunted, discussed openly in corporate media that presented them as part of his charismatic, charlatan mystique.

Trump’s election victory is poetic justice; perhaps the only form of justice now dispensed in these Disunited States. That is, those who promoted and elected him, have now begun to paint themselves as his guileless victims. Beginning with the breakfast combo of Joe and Mika over at MSNBC, CNN and other news organizations that once stepped over themselves to provide a forum for Trump to spread his falsehoods, take umbrage at the fact that those lies now target them.

Lies, amorality and other erratic behavior, according to that anonymous New York Times op-ed by a White House insider, have alarmed even Trump’s worst and dimmest. Still, despite the rash of recent books and articles about Trump’s behavior, it was never a national secret. His voluminous dirty laundry was aired not only by his distractors but almost compulsively by the man himself in numerous newspaper, magazine, radio and television interviews throughout his career and during his presidential campaign. After all, this is a man, bone spurs and all, who once boasted to Howard Stern that STDs were his “personal Vietnam.”

Yet, the same outlets that so recklessly and unconscionably promoted him during the election, providing free of charge a forum for his falsehoods, exaggerations, and provocations, now oscillate between affecting the faux naiveté of an offended a “vapors”-prone Southern belle and the self-righteousness indignity of morally superior Brahmins who, finally, a year into the Trump presidency, have summoned the courage to call him and his fact-challenged drudges on their copious lies.

Always the grand manipulator, Trump the celebrity has grabbed the media by the “ratings” and has yet to let go. Something, until recently, the corporate media does not really seem to mind. During the election, Trump’s voice, if not the actual airbag articulating it, was a fixture on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. CBS head Les Moonves, himself an alleged pussy grabber, cynically observed that Trump’s candidacy “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” “Man,” he went on, “who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? … The money’s rolling in and this is fun.” As if this were not already a damning admission, Moonves went on to add that given the rise in ad revenues, like any good imperial Roman impresario, he welcomed the “circus” and “hopes it continues,” which, indeed, it has – with a vengeance, the leaks about Trump’s alleged infidelities with Russian prostitutes and porn stars reading like a combination of the Manchurian Candidate and Fifty Shades of Grey, or is it Yellow?

Sadly, Trump boast in the wake of the New York Times’ publication of the “resistance” op-ed that “Someday, when I’m not president…the New York Times and CNN and all of these phony media outlets will be out of business” may not have beencompletely off the mark. To paraphrase a truism, when the electoral process hands you an orange you make orange juice. According to the Times (February 8, 2018), its subscription revenues surpassed one billion dollars in 2017. A year ago, following Trump’s furor over “fake news,” the paper,in its hunt for more subscribers, took out television ads that proclaimed itself the Diogenes of journalism: “The truth is hard to find. The truth is hard to know. The truth is more important now than ever.” That bid seems to have paid off.: As the Financial Times (May 3, 2018) reported, this so-called Trump Bump accounted for a 66% rise in the New York Times’ profits in the first quarter of 2018.

Trump’s excesses, while profitable, entertaining and immensely readable, pose a major dilemma for post-fact America. For once upon a time Joe and Mika had been invited guests to Mar-A-Lago, Trump’s own private Xanadu, the so-called southern White House, whose gaudy, glistening halls house massive dining rooms, marbled ballrooms, golden showers, and presumably an attic that may hold the answer to the mysterious covfefe, the president’s personal MacGuffin. However, whether by design or not, Trump and his daily parade of scandals continue to provide a convenient distraction from the nation’s other pressing ills:

Blacks are murdered almost daily by police who, like the nation’s present commander in chief, escape the consequences of their actions, leaving taxpayers with the bill for their homicidal transgressions. Despite this fact, white working- and middle-class taxpayers, who are still wont to complain about food stamp-abusing “welfare queens” have remained conspicuously tightlipped when they must pay millions as the result of civil cases brought against these executioners in blue. Even more disturbing, blacks who, contrary to perdurable stereotypes, pay taxes too, must subsidize their own assassins. Not even the Nazis demanded that Jews pay train fare to Auschwitz.

+ The deportation of non-documented immigrants did not begin with Trump. As has been reported, under Obama more than 2.5 million undocumented immigrants were deported.

+ And while Trump dropped the MOAB on Afghanistan, Obama, albeit less spectacularly, dropped more than his fair share of ordinance on a wide swath of the South Central Asia and the Middle East, the human costs of which the American media largely refuses to cover.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Even the moderately perspicacious among us know how terrible Trump is, but he is the thin-skinned personification of long-metastasizing American ills, notthe cause of them. He is a cancer on America, not its etiology. Excising this cancer by impeachment, resignation, invoking the 25th Amendment or other means will not cure it and may even lull us further into an Overton window of complacency. Certainly no one seriously thinks America will be better under Mike Pence, though he may be the beneficiary of our lowered standards. And while the daily lampooning of Trump and company by a chorus of late night talk-show hosts is both amusing and cathartic, it is best to bear in mind the warning from the late Harlan Ellison that opens this polemic. Democracy in America may end with neither a whimper nor a bang, but with the whistle of the executioner’s axe, or perhaps with the braying of our own nervous laughter.

In the end, regardless of the threat Trump poses to American democracy, he isentertaining, and entertainment sells. Corporate journalists, carnival barkers of the Apocalypse, shout the news at us, gesturing emphatically as they describe tragedies, sometimes reenacting them when actual footage is not available and scoring it all with dramatic BMG. If the Romans could have traded in their bread and circuses, this is what they might have substituted. And this, according to the rating-mongers, is what we crave, at least until some brave new Silicon Valley upstart succeeds in developing Aldous Huxley’s “smellies,” “tasties,” and “feelies.” That Trump would choose a wrestling gif in his relentless attack on “fake new” (save, of course, the safely sycophantic FOX News) is telling, since television punditry has devolved into verbal wrestling matches whose participants shout over each other and trade insults, only to be politely invited back for another mind-numbing, adrenalin-fueled round. This is bread and circus America, one whose collapse, unlike that of the Roman empire, has not been precipitated by the “barbarians” at its gates but by those within it walls, those who, under Orange Julius, are bent on building anotherwall that would exclude those whose struggles have helped the nation achieve greatness by continuously compelling it to deliver on its lofty if still unfulfilled promise.

Prior to his election, the media was reluctant to call out Trump on his lies. Indeed, there was a period when it debated even to call them such. Now, having found its spine, it may be too late for the it to undo the damage. For while it is evident that Trump and his minions have difficulty embracing such concepts as honesty, facts, and integrity, it really doesn’t matter, since as caricatures of political celebrity they have been absorbed into the American infotainment-industrial complex.

But then, the sky is the limit when it comes to American entertainment. Whether on the big screen, in the baseball stadium, on the basketball court, or in the courtroom itself. Americans and their corporate overlords are eager to shell out millions to entertain and be entertained. Not only must Americans be entertained, but their entertainments must be suffused withviolence, real or imagined. Americans demand their technicolor explosions and car crashes, their arsenal-depleting shoot outs, for we love our realism and there is nothing so real to Americans as violence, particularly when it is fake and nothing so fake as real violence (just ask Alex Jones) – the more graphicly murderous the better.

It is with this in mind, that one reaches the dispiriting understanding that black lives do matter, if only as gist for riveting national “conversations” about race that never actually manage to just do anything about the matters they endlessly discuss. A half century ago Muhammad Ali was vilified by the mainstream media and the American heartland for defiantly proclaiming that “No Vietcong ever called me nigger.” One awaits similar voices of conscience to testify to the fact that ISIS terrorists, however indefensible their atrocities, have not shot unarmed blacks in the back, in their cars, in their driveways, or even in their own apartments after mistaking those apartments for their own, a claim America’s finest cannot make. But why take the risk such a public pronouncement would entail. Like the Fatherland and Motherland of surveillance states past and present, our Homeland can be quite unforgiving when one talks truth to power. Just ask Chelsea Manning Edward Snowden, and Colin Kaepernick.

Unfortunately, none of these excessive uses of force against black people is particularly surprising given the fact that white American once found amusement in lynching blacks, mutilating and castrating their corpses, preserving their severed genitalia in mason jars and taking photographs of their dangling trophies to commemorate their atrocities (imagine if Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram had existed back then).

But then America loves to be entertained.


1 Harlan Ellison’s Watching, Milwaukie, OR: M Press 2008: 130.