Sunday morning, I received a text from my college-aged daughter, a recently-minted political activist, asking:
People win in presidential debates?Lauren Haskins, text message, 9/20/2020
Her confusion was understandable, though it had been a long time since I had thought about it in such terms.1I watched a couple of 2020 Democratic primary debates for entertainment purposes, but anyone who watches a debate to decide which candidate to vote for deserves Donald Trump as their president. And here we are.
Not really, but that’s how it works.Steve Haskins, text message, 9/20/2020
Immediately, she texted back:
That’s weird. Who judges? Hugh Hewitt?Lauren Haskins, text message, 9/20/2020
Propriety forbids me from revealing my answer to that question.
In any event, this was sophisticated analysis on my daughter’s part. How does one “win” a presidential debate? Aren’t the “debates” simply for the candidates to test and explain their ideas? And if those ideas are right, then what does how they are presented in a random one-minute soundbite matter?
Before he spun off into the right-wing fever swamps, the 90’s version of Dennis Miller was actually a trenchant political observer. I have always remembered one particularly insightful rant in the wake of the 1992 election, the three-way election between incumbent George H.W. Bush, Democratic challenger Bill Clinton, and independent billionaire H. Ross Perot. Perot’s insurgent candidacy pre-saged Donald Trump’s—like Trump, Perot railed against free trade and globalization though his candidacy was not so starkly built on white supremacy, as Trump’s is.
Admiral James Stockdale was Perot’s running mate. His candidacy was a fluke. Perot had chosen him as a placeholder to qualify for state ballots, fully intending to appoint a different nominee later. But Perot dropped out of the race on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, temporarily boosting Clinton’s efforts. Perot re-entered the race in the fall to play spoiler, but too late to replace Stockdale, who did not prepare for a debate he was told he would participate in only a week before.
Stockdale opened the debate with the immortal lines “Who am I? What am I doing here?” These were questions that the debate never answered. Perot ended up with 19% of the vote in November, and after a roundly mocked performance, Stockdale ended up a historical footnote.
Miller was one of the few observers who openly wondered whether Stockdale had been put to the right test. As he put it,
Now I know (Stockdale’s name has) become a buzzword in this culture for doddering old man, but let’s look at the record, folks. The guy was the first guy in and the last guy out of Vietnam, a war that many Americans, including our present President, did not want to dirty their hands with. The reason he had to turn his hearing aid on at that debate is because those fucking animals knocked his eardrums out when he wouldn’t spill his guts. He teaches philosophy at Stanford University, he’s a brilliant, sensitive, courageous man. And yet he committed the one unpardonable sin in our culture: he was bad on television.2A Miller fan in the early 1990s, I specifically remembered this particular rant because it was so insightful at the time. When I went back to research the exact clip, I was surprised to find it (1) on Stockdale’s Wikipedia entry and (2) to find a Wikipedia editor debate over whether Miller had actually said it. I could have resolved that debate anytime. Incidentally, Miller now claims that this incident drove him rightward because “liberals” attacked Stockdale with particular vehemence. My memory is that nobody took it easy on Stockdale—consider that Republicans were competing for potential Perot voters and had their own alleged lightweight in Dan Quayle. Indeed, Phil Hartman’s portrayals of Stockdale on Miller’s own show were hilarious, but pulled no punches. No word on whether Miller continues to weigh Stockdale’s POW status as valuable in light of Donald Trump’s position on same.
Of course, now it is 2020 and we have reaped what we have sown. America’s media obsessions have merged with its politics, creating a political Thing From Another World.3Parental guidance suggested on the clip. Trump is not “good” on television by any objective criteria, but he is expert at employing it to infiltrate, reflect, and ultimately destroy his targets.
For decades, television “reality” programming by and large showed its hand. The news was written and read by highly-trusted “anchormen,” reflecting something approaching a public trust. Even heavily-produced talk shows like The Tonight Show reveled in spontaneous moments. Ed Ames launching a tomahawk into the crotch of an innocent stage target on The Tonight Show not only made for great entertainment, but signaled the audience that not everything was planned in advance—tune in tomorrow for more surprises.
The early exception was game shows. It was 50s-era game-show producers Jack Barry and Dan Enright that first discovered the power of scripting reality. After their show 21 endured a disastrous debut, Barry and Enright started giving contestants the answers, effectively staging each episode’s dramatic close. And when the charming, engaging WASP intellectual Charles Van Doren appeared on the show, Barry and Enright had their mark—someone the audience would both believe knew all the answers and would root for.4As compared to Herbert Stengel, whom Trump would adjudge to lack “racehorse genes.” Van Doren spent months racking up “wins” and became a full-fledged celebrity in his own right. When the ruse was discovered, Barry and Enright spent more than a decade exiled from television. But savvy television producers didn’t forget their success at what mattered most.
Less than a decade after Stockdale’s flop, CBS debuted Survivor. The formula changed slightly. The producers let the game play to its conclusion, but the producers now knew the ending. Sitting on hundreds of hours of camera footage, the producers could simply stitch together the story most likely to interest and retain viewers in light of the end. And since the game’s end wasn’t technically “rigged,” unlike 21, there were no legal consequences. In fact, the First Amendment protects the entire enterprise.
Two decades later, this type of produced reality is the norm, not the exception. Trump’s own Apprentice program ran for over a decade, with all of Trump’s monstrous moments excised and buried under an avalanche of non-disclosure agreements and expensive lawyers. All these shows purport to invoke reality, but are in fact manipulated to an extreme degree.
If you’ve ever tried to pick up one of these shows halfway through and get involved, you’ll know it is hard to do. You need time to soak in the editing cues and story twists the producers want you to see. Building drama and tension is how they convince viewers to tune in next week.
Even before Trump’s malevolent rise to leader of the free world, there were hints that “reality” television may be extracting higher societal costs than might be expected. For example, one study reported by NPR found that:
[W]atching reality shows with lots of what’s called relational aggression — bullying, exclusion and manipulation — can make people more aggressive in their real lives.
Oh ho. Trump knows these viewers already have stuck around this long, and that’s why his 2020 campaign became The Bachelor: Mein Kampf Edition. These fans do not want lip-service to African-American progress, or detailed health-care policy proposals. They want to be reminded of their “racehorse genes” and that the “projects” will never be built in their towns. They want the wall, so as to be reassured that this country belongs to them.
And more than anything else, Trump’s viewers know how the show must end. So do his producers. Hence, there must be an Election Night victor—Trump, natch—and since Democrats have segregated their votes by mail, mail votes can simply be tossed, like so much film falling to the cutting-room floor. These messages are reinforced by Fox News, OAN, and the QAnon cult. If you are wondering how your Republican friends can be so committed to something so vile, consider how many seasons the Kardashians have been on E!
Yet, despite years of ceaseless television exposure, here we are on the precipice of this year’s first presidential debate with two more to follow. And it is worth remembering that for approximately 40% of the population, these debates are just very special episodes where Trump plays Dudley to the media’s and Democratic Party’s Bicycle Man. Yet another example of Trump capturing once-banal American rituals—pledges of allegiance, prayers, debates, party conventions, press conferences—and infusing them with corrosive malice. It is hard to see good coming from any of it. Nor does any return to normalcy seem viable.
So many things had to go wrong to arrive at the point where 40% of America cannot tell reality from racism. As it turns out, one of those things is that we probably should have listened to Dennis Miller more in the early 90s, and less during the last two decades.