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Dear Reader (and everyone else I have failed),
I would respect Roy Moore a lot more if he began his victory speech last week by taking his gavel and hurling it at the CNN cameras in the back of the room, shouting “Are you not entertained!”
But, unlike Russell Crowe’s Maximus, Moore can’t, or won’t, let the mask slip to show his disdain for the spectacle he has become. Whether that’s because he’s extremely disciplined in his cynicism or because he’s extremely sincere in his jackassery, I have no idea. Nor do I really care.
What’s going on with his voters, on the other hand, matters to me. Which brings me back to this gladiator thing. Gladiatorial games served a number of purposes in Ancient Rome. First of all, what else are you going to use all those Carthaginians for? Blood sport was also entertainment, of course, but with a political purpose. By extolling violent victory in battle as the highest aesthetic value, the Romans kept the populace committed to imperial expansion (many of the most popular games were “reenactments” of glorious Roman victories). By legitimizing and glorifying cruelty, emperors had a convenient tool for terrorizing their enemies, keeping the people in line, and satisfying their own sadism, as when Commodus tied prisoners together and clubbed them to death, pretending that he was Hercules slaughtering “giants.” Or when a heckler in the stands jeered at one of Domitian’s favorite gladiators and the emperor responded by having him pulled from his seat and thrown to wild dogs in the arena.
In short, the games reflected the politics of the age and in turn the politics of the age reflected the games. Figuring out which way the causal arrows went in Roman culture is like trying to find the starting point of a Mobius strip.
Buy Gold And Pass The Gunpowder!
With the exception of MMA and boxing, which are weak substitutes for watching dudes disembowel each other with pikes and swords, we don’t have literal gladiatorial games in America today. But we have plenty of figurative ones. Lots of movies, video games (“Finish him!”), and TV shows all serve a similar function, even if our political rulers don’t play anything like the kind of role the emperors did in dictating the stories they tell. Is the popularity of The Walking Dead, and its countless apocalyptic knock-offs, a reflection of the political climate or a driver of it? The only sensible answer is “both.”
Lots of people like to divide the world into different categorical or conceptual silos. This is entertainment. That is politics. This stuff over here is journalism, and that stuff is sports. Oh, and this is the head of Alfredo Garcia. Etc.
I very much like to keep these silos separate as much as possible (in fact, that’s a huge theme of my forthcoming book). But the truth has always been that all of these things bleed into each other (literally so in the case of Garcia). No, I’m not saying that football is a crypto-fascist metaphor for nuclear war. But I’m saying that we carry ideas across all of these borders, in part because that’s just how language works. (For instance, sports, journalism and politics are a battleground of martial metaphors: campaign, over the top, ceasefire, crossfire, besieged, firestorm, salvo, hotshot, friendly-fire, launch, collateral damage, decimated, firestorm, and on and on).
One place you can see this pretty clearly is advertising. Because advertising is driven by a single motive — sell the product — ad-makers are brilliant at grabbing knickknacks from whichever cultural bin will hold the eyes or ears of the consumer. In 1969, Columbia Records launched an ad campaign around the slogan, “The Man Can’t Bust Our Music.” The effort was a bit of a fizzle, much like Pepsi’s recent effort to glom onto Black Lives Matter, but you get the point.
Well, have you noticed how ads from the NRA and gold bugs have changed their tone of late? No doubt in part because a Republican-controlled government poses little plausible threat to gun rights, the NRA is now investing heavily in partisan tribalism and paranoid fear of social unrest.
Now, I should say, there’s a lot I agree with in the ads, but the tone and overall message strikes me as exploitative and creepy coming from a gun-rights group. I have the same feeling about this odd battleships-and-bullion mash-up of patriotism, nostalgia, militarism, and paranoia from our friends at Rosland Capital.
Politics as Entertainment
Conservatives in particular love to complain about the politicization of entertainment. I gather the new incarnation of Will and Grace will be leading the Parade of Horribles for a few days until something else takes its place. Who could have predicted that?
But as I’ve written a few times recently, there’s a flip side to the politicization of popular culture. When you lower the barriers between politics and entertainment you get more politics in entertainment, but you also get more entertainment in your politics. It’s like the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercials, “Hey, you got your politics in my popular culture!” “You got your popular culture in my politics!”
Whether they are two great tastes that go great together is a matter of taste. But when it happens neither politics nor entertainment are the same. Donald Trump leapt into politics from the worlds of reality shows and professional wrestling. In those worlds, the most important thing is holding the attention of the audience. In wrestling, if you can be popular playing the “face” — the good guy — great. But it’s far better to be a ratings-grabbing “heel” — the bad guy — than to be a boring face. The same goes for reality shows. Puck from the Real World and Richard Hatch from Survivor proved long ago that compelling a**holes are better than boring nice people. As far as I can tell, all of the Desperate Housewives are horrible people.
But here’s the thing. Asininity is in the eye of the beholder these days. Which brings me back to Roy Moore.
I’m open to correction, but this guy strikes me as nothing more than a bigoted, theocratic, and ignorant buffoon. The supposed standard-bearer of True Trumpism in the race did not even know what DACA was or who the Dreamers were. Friends of mine tell me the voters don’t care, because he’s on the right side of the immigration issue and most of them couldn’t tell you what DACA stands for. Okay, what that says about the voters — or the authenticity of nationalistic populism — is a topic for another day. But that’s all irrelevant. We elect senators to know . . . something about public policy. It seems reasonable that, at a time when Trump’s surrender on DACA was causing Ann Coulter to call for his impeachment, the Optimus Prime of True Trumpism should at least have a passing understanding of the core issue of the Faith. But, hey, I’m a pie-eyed idealist.
The reality is policy expertise and ideological coherence are not central to Moore’s character. When he asks the director “What’s my motivation?” the answer is not “crafting sound legislation.” It’s “stick it to the hippies, ay-rabs, and queers!”
And this explains something that will undoubtedly be lost on every MSNBC host and New York Times editor. Most of the people who voted for Moore don’t actually agree with him. They find him entertaining.
I have no doubt that many of the people who voted for him are decent people. I’d also bet lots of them don’t agree with Moore’s shtick. Do all the patriotic Alabamans who voted for Moore believe that 9/11 was God’s wrath on a sinful America? Or that America is “the focus of evil in the world?” I very much doubt it. Do they all think evolution is “fake”? Some? Sure. All? No way.
Moore is like a right-wing version of the “Progressive Liberal” heel. I’m sure many like his brashness and forthrightness and his unapologetic defense of Christianity. And while I haven’t run a focus group or anything, I strongly suspect his real value-add is that he horrifies all the right people. Like that other political stock character with the same last name, Michael Moore, his appeal lies in the fact he’s a living Internet troll.
In the same vein, we also know that Moore won in part because voters were led to believe that this would be a hilarious way to screw with Mitch McConnell and “The Establishment.” I think that’s either an incredibly juvenile or cynical motivation when you look at what the real-world consequences of his election would be. Yes, he’ll make McConnell’s job harder (Whoopee!). But he’ll also make Trump’s job harder. He’ll say something idiotic about how health-care reform should pay for electroshock therapy for transgender Muslims and the White House will have to respond. Moderate — and sane conservative — Republicans will have to distance themselves if they want to hold onto their seats. And the Democrats Trump wants to cut deals with will have a harder time doing anything with the Party of Moore. No matter how you slice it, it will be harder for Trump to rack up any of his coveted “wins.” The Republican brand will be tarnished even more as mainstream media outlets and late-night comedians gleefully broadcast Moore’s asininity to the broader public. But, yeah, sure: It’ll be entertaining for people who now follow politics like it’s one long pro-wrestling kayfabe.
The Price of Failure
These trends will get worse for lots of reasons. I could write a book about all of the reasons. Oh, wait: I pretty much did. But one reason is worth pointing out as the GOP moves into the tax-reform episode of this reality show. The more unproductive and dysfunctional Washington is, the more it seems irrelevant to, or incapable of improving, the lives of regular people, the lower the stakes become in treating politics like entertainment. If “The Establishment” can’t deliver the goods, why not just treat it like the straight man for clowns like Moore?
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: The beasts are ecstatic about the arrival of fall weather. But a small problem. Pippa, who’s always been a bit tetched in the cabeza, is getting weirder. In the mornings she’s super eager to go out, but when we get to the park before dawn these days she’s afraid of the dark. When I drive to the park she will chase a ball and then run right back into the car and hide. It takes a while to coax her back out and actually walk, which is unfair to Zoë. This phobia has been an intermittent problem ever since she got scared by two Corgis wearing flashing neon collars. That was when she ran over a mile home and I thought she was lost forever. In that episode, Zoë attacked one of the Corgis, on the assumption they were deadly aliens. I pulled her off very quickly and she’s much better about that sort of thing now. But the other morning we saw the dreaded neon Corgis again. I put Zoë on a leash immediately and she wasn’t even hostile. But Pippa ran away again, this time into the woods. Once the entirely harmless Corgis were out of sight Pippa came running back and hid in the foot-well of the front passenger seat. But now, it’s a problem at night too. Normally, Pippa will automatically go bonkers at the mere suggestion of going outside — like when I get out of a chair. But a lot of nights these days, you have to get her really worked up about the idea of going outside, and then she tends to just hide on my front lawn. It wouldn’t be a big deal, except the days are getting shorter and the darkness, horrible darkness, is ever more unavoidable.
Oh! One more canine update: The Zoë plush toy is out!
In other news . . . The William F. Buckley Program is soliciting proposals for how best to advance Bill’s ideals. And there are cash prizes! Details here.
Don’t forget the NRI Dinner is coming up!
Or the Commentary Roast of Yours Truly.
I will be speaking at American University on October 4.
I will be speaking to the Conservative Forum of Silicon Valley on October 10.
ICYMI . . .
Oh, a note about this column. I got an email asking me about whether or not I was influenced by Kevin “Seamus” Hasson’s book The Right To Be Wrong. Hasson founded the Becket Fund, a truly great organization. It is entirely possible Hasson influenced me by osmosis, but I have to say I was unaware of the book. Still, I’ve gone ahead and bought it.
And now, the weird stuff.