Thursday, July 21, 2016

Geek show

So I am not actually watching the Republican National Convention, minute by minute on cable TV or even just the hour of prime-time on the broadcast networks. Can't do it. It's not just that I can't listen to so much rhetoric that I disagree with. The ignorance behind the rhetoric makes me crazy and depressed.

But that doesn't stop me from following the convention, in blogs and on Twitter. It's like the pull of a soap opera. I followed "All My Children" with giddy but ironic embarrassment through high school and college. What delicious, outrageous thing would happen next, spun out slowly from Monday through Thursday, with a cliffhanger on Friday to bring you back again after the weekend. 

Nowadays there's reality TV, also spinning out stories for weeks at a time, stories that regardless of the appearance of spontaneity are arranged and even provoked by producers.  I'm not hooked on any of those, which might have as much to do with being too disorganized to remember to watch as it does with revulsion at the values and obsessions of the people on these shows. 

Politics is the spectacle I follow, though it worries me that political news is more about the story than the policies, more about who's winning and losing than about government serving real people. But all my college-educated high-mindedness still leaves me unable to take my eyes off the geek show that is the Republican presidential nomination process.

I don't use the term geek show lightly. My sainted husband, Lon Grahnke, often reminded people that originally the word geek referred to a sideshow performer who chased and caught chickens and bit their heads off. A geek was the lowest form of carnival performer, despised by other performers, who themselves lived outside the boundaries of polite society. 

Lon's knowledge of geek shows would come up in the context of discussions of professional wrestling. Lon was a journalist and a lifelong pro wrestling fan. If he were alive right now, I'm sure he'd be pitching a piece to his editors comparing Donald Trump and his campaign to a pro wrestling narrative.

Lon reported on pro wrestling in the late 1980s, in a way that earned him the trust of both wrestlers and readers. Was it all fake? He never put that question to the guys he interviewed, because, hey, everybody knew it was a, um, heightened version of reality. Lon's stories did not appear in the sports section but in the Chicago Sun Times' entertainment pages. Wrestling was more like live theatre than baseball, performance art for the masses, circus acts on steroids, with narratives punctuated by body slams and blood in the ring, bluster and the accumulation of crass wealth backstage.

The shared public value was dominance--winning. Also, humiliating the opponent. 

And so we arrive at the Republican National Convention, where the phrase "winning the nomination" seems to me to be heard far more often than "nominated for the office of President of the United States." We're watching a celebration of the contest, not a consideration of the responsibility ahead. The RNC and the Republican presidential contest and debates that preceded it have had much more in common with the wrestling ring than with, say, the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. Not that those 19th-century guys didn't play to the crowd--they did. They were politicians. But they also relied on reason and logic at a time when the nation's ideals were in serious question. The crowds listened, for hours under the hot summer sun.

Trump's message is about winning, vanquishing foes, making fun of losers. He appeals to the downtrodden by conning them with the dazzle of wealth or the promise of the freedom to say whatever you feel, offend whom you may, rather than with actual policy or plans. It's a geek show. He runs this way and that, catches the chicken and then outrageously bites its head off. He body slams opponents by making fun of them. His surrogates incite chants of "lock her up" against his Democratic opponent. You can't help watching to see what he does next, and this week of screw-up after screw-up, badly handled, has not failed to disappoint.

And then, in a turn of events worthy of the wrestling ring, Ted Cruz, the mortal enemy, takes the stage, seems to be making up with Donald, but in a surprising cynical twist, refuses to endorse him, uses the word conscience, and is booed off the stage. 

How can you not watch? 

When Lon reported on professional wrestling he was always respectful of its fans and his readers. The wrestlers he interviewed were also mindful of fans--after all, they bought the tickets and the merchandise. Pundits and analysts have been busy this year figuring out who the Trump voters are and pointing out that the "Make America great again" slogan appeals to people who are fearful of the future in a world that is changing. They point out that the policies of the elite leadership of the Republican party ignored the realities of its ordinary voters. 

Trump's life history shows that he's perfectly willing to use his brand to dupe fans, with schemes like Trump University or simply by not paying the contractors and small businesses who work on his projects. He's done serious damage to social norms in America and it's hard to imagine how the divisiveness he encourages for his own narcissistic ends can be repaired in the months ahead.

Trump's overblown messaging, his theatricality and spontaneity, are entertaining, mesmerizing even, though he's no more qualified to be president than Hulk Hogan. And he has a lot less heart.

No comments: