Why has it taken so long for an angry TV demagogue to win a major party's nomination for President?
It was in 1976, during the Reagan era, that Paddy Chayefsky gave us the formula and warning in 'Network," a dire comedy that he wrote about what was then called the tube. Many alive back then can recall the words of the fictional news anchor, Howard Beale, who told his nation-wide millions of listeners to get up out of their chairs, open a window and shout, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this any more". And of this audience, who can forget the shots of windows being thrown open, and men and women hollering their fury into a thunder storm?
Beale's mission was not to star in as reality show specializing in the art of firing people, as Trump later did, but to beg his fans to turn off their sets. Why? The tube, he said, "is a goddamn amusement park. Television is a circus, a carnival" We're in the boredom-killing business."
Billed as an "angry prophet," Beale told his audience "You're beginning to think the tube is reality, and your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you to. You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even think like the tube. This is mass madness." In summary, "you people are the real thing. We are the illusion."
Along with this warning, way before the era of social media, Chayefsky also saw that people were worried, upset, even enraged. The troubles were different then. Not Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, but Vietnam. Not he long recession initiated under George W. Bush, but the economic troubles of the mid-seventies. Not the scandals of current Presidential candidates, but Nixon's Watergate. But the pattern is familiar. Actually, Arabs were denounced in "Network,", not for being radical terrorists bombing buildings, but for being oil-rich sheiks buying US and British buildings and other assets.
Like Trump today, Beale told his audience: "We know things are bad. Worse than bad--they're crazy. It's like everything everywhere is going crazy. We sit in the house, we don't go out any more, and slowly the world we're living in is getting smaller and all we say is 'Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone.'
The fictional anchor continued: " I'm not going to leave you alone. I want you to get mad. I don't want you to protest. I don't want you to write to your Congressman, because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write. I don't know what to do about the depression and inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you've got to get mad. You've got to say, 'I'm a human being, goddamn it! My life has value'."
Like Trump, Beale was articulating rage.
"Network" was largely a satire about the worship of ratings. If that weren't a preoccupation of media executives in a private enterprise system, would Trump have been able to manipulate TV so brilliantly? Would he ever have gained traction or, as many observers naively expected, would he have been laughed off? Trump complains about "the media," but if the media hadn't rolled over for a TV-trained showman, would he ever have won the nomination?
Beale kept access to millions of viewers by calling for expression of rage, just as Trump 30 years later grabbed a major party's nomination by making inchoate rage okay to express. Being a fictional character, Beale didn't hurt any real people, but that might occur if another "lone gunman" is emboldened by the example of a racist, xenophobic, misogynistic candidate.
Many people seem to believe that if enough voters in November see through flim-flam we will be done with the rage exploited by Trump. But why would the rage subside during a Presidential term or two that again follows the economic policies of a corporate state? Won't the rage remain, perhaps to be exploited by a less narcissistic, less ignorant, less misogynistic candidate who even makes less stuff up?