The Greatest Show on Earth
How Billions of Words, Tweets, Insults, and Polls Blot Out Reality in Campaign 2016
By Tom Engelhardt
Yep, it finally happened. In early May, after a long, long run, the elephants of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus were ushered into retirement in Florida where they will finish their days aiding cancer research. The Greatest Show on Earth was done with its pachyderms. The same might be said about the Republicans after Donald Trump's version of a GOP convention. Many of them had also been sent, far less gracefully than those circus elephants, into a kind of enforced retirement (without even cancer research as an excuse). Their former party remained in the none-too-gentle hands of the eternally aggrieved Trump, while the Democrats were left to happily chant "USA! USA!," march a barking retired four-star general and a former CIA director on stage to invoke the indispensable "greatness" of America, and otherwise exhibit the kind of super-patriotism and worship of the military usually associated with... no question about it... the GOP (whose delegates instead spent their time chanting "lock her up!").
And that's just to take the tiniest of peeks at a passing moment in what continues to be, without the slightest doubt, the Greatest Show on Earth in 2016.
My small suggestion: don't even try to think your way through all this. It's the media equivalent of entering King Minos's labyrinth. You'll never get out. I'm talking about -- what else? -- the phenomenon we still call an "election campaign," though it bears remarkably little resemblance to anything Americans might once have bestowed that label on.
Still, look on the bright side: the Republican and Democratic conventions are in the rearview mirror and a mere three months of endless yakking are left until Election Day.
In the last year, untold billions of words have been expended on this "election" and the outsized histories, flaws, and baggage the two personalities now running for president bring with them. Has there ever been this sort of coverage -- close to a year of it already -- hour after hour, day after day, night after night? Has the New York Times ever featured stories about the same candidate and his cronies, two at a time, on its front page daily the way it's recently been highlighting the antics of The Donald? Have there ever been so many "experts" of every stripe jawing away about a single subject on cable TV from the crack of dawn to the witching hour? Has there ever been such a mass of pundits churning out opinions by the hour, or so many polls about the American people's electoral desires steamrollering each other from dawn to dusk? And, of course, those polls are then covered, discussed, and analyzed endlessly. Years ago, Jonathan Schell suggested that we no longer had an election, but (thanks to those polls) "serial elections." He wrote that back in the Neolithic Age and we've come an awful long way since then. There are now websites, after all, that seem to do little more than produce mega-polls from all the polls spewing out.
And don't forget the completely self-referential nature of this "campaign." If ever there was an event that was about itself and focused only on itself, this is it. Donald Trump, for instance, has taken possession of Twitter and his furious -- in every sense, since he's the thinnest-skinned candidate ever -- tweets rapidly pile up, are absorbed into "news" articles about the campaign that are, in turn, tweeted out for The Donald to potentially tweet about in a Möbius strip of blather.
What You Can't Blame Donald Trump For
And yet, despite all the words expended and polls stumbling over each other to illuminate next to nothing, can't you feel that there's something unsaid, something unpolled, something missing?
As the previous world of American politics melts and the electoral seas continue to rise, those of us in the coastal outlands of domestic politics find ourselves, like so many climate refugees, fleeing the tides of spectacle, insult, propaganda, and the rest. We're talking about a phenomenon that's engulfing us. We're drowning in a sea of words and images called "Election 2016." We have no more accurate name for it, no real way to step back and describe the waters we're drowning in. And if you expect me to tell you what to call it, think again. I'm drowning, too.
You can blame Donald Trump for many things in this bizarre season of political theater, but don't blame him for the phenomenon itself. He may have been made for this moment with his uncanny knack for turning himself into a never-ending news cycle of one and scarfing up billions of dollars of free publicity, but he was a Johnny-come-lately to the process itself. After all, he wasn't one of the Supreme Court justices who, in their 2010 Citizens United decision, green-lighted the flooding of American politics with the dollars of the ultra-wealthy in the name of free speech and in amounts that boggle the imagination (even as that same court has gone ever easier on the definition of political "corruption"). As a certified tightwad, Trump wasn't the one who made it possible to more or less directly purchase a range of politicians and so ensure that we would have our first 1% elections. Nor was he the one who made American politics a perfect arena for a rogue billionaire with enough money (and chutzpah) to buy himself.
It's true that no political figure has ever had The Donald's TV sense. Still, before he was even a gleam in his own presidential eye, the owners of cable news and other TV outlets had already grasped that an election season extending from here to Hell might morph into a cornucopia of profits. He wasn't the one who realized that such an ever-expanding campaign season would not only bring in billions of dollars in political ads (thank you, again, Supreme Court for helping to loose super PACs on the world), but billions more from advertisers for prime spots in the ongoing spectacle itself. He wasn't the one who realized that a cable news channel with a limited staff could put every ounce of energy, every talking head around, into such an election campaign, and glue eyeballs in remarkable ways, solving endless problems for a year or more. This was all apparent by the 2012 election, as debates spread across the calendar, ad money poured in, and the yakking never stopped. Donald Trump didn't create this version of an eternal reality show. He's just become its temporary host and Hillary Clinton, his quick-to-learn apprentice.
And yet be certain of one thing: neither those Supreme Court justices, nor the owners of TV outlets, nor the pundits, politicians, pollsters, and the rest of the crew knew what exactly they were creating. Think of them as the American equivalent of the blind men and the elephant (and my apologies if I can't keep pachyderms out of this piece).
In this riot of confusion that passes for an election, with one candidate who's a walking Ponzi scheme and the other who (with her husband) has shamelessly pocketed staggering millions of dollars from the financial and tech sectors, what are we to make of "our" strange new world? Certainly, this is no longer just an election campaign. It's more like a way of life and, despite all its debates (that now garner National Football League-sized audiences), it's also the tao of confusion.
Missing in Action This Election Season