Tune in for the next round of US (un)reality TV

Tune in for the next round of US (un)reality TV
US President Donald Trump (Photo: Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

The US political system — should it be explained by thinking of it now as a competition between three new television series: ‘The Impeachment Show’, ‘Nomination! — Battleground Version’ and the all-new ‘Donald Trump as an Actual President’?

Prediction is very hard, especially about the future” – Nobel Prize-winning Danish physicist Niels Bohr and US baseball great Yogi Berra.

The other day, I gave a presentation to a gathering of South African business figures at a colloquium organised by a major international news and business weekly. My task was to provide explanatory context regarding the ongoing contest for the Democratic Party’s nomination to be their nominee for the 2020 presidential election. But I was also asked to evaluate the likely impact of the continuing investigations into the incumbent president’s behaviour and if it would reach the constitutional and political threshold for impeachment and conviction.

Afterwards, thinking about what I had said, and the questions that had been asked of me, I realised there was a need to look at the overarching narratives in those stories more metaphorically (sorry, the word “narrative” is trendy, but it really does seem to me that narrative approach should be in addition to all the detailed policy analyses and dissection of personalities of the leading dramatis personae on display on all the talking heads news shows on TV.)

Then it dawned on me, to explain these events and stories in their fullness, one needed to see them as if they were three competing television series, each on a different network. There has been the “The Impeachment Show” (replacing an earlier less-than-successful programme, “The Mueller Report”). There is also the increasingly vigorous show, “Nomination! – Battleground Version”. And, most recently, the box is offering viewers the all-new “Donald Trump as an Actual President” reality show, a replacement for the less-than-honest, accurate, or compelling “Donald Trump as Avenging Angel Against the Swamp” show.

Seen this way, it all makes much more sense. This is because most of what is happening on these three fronts is designed to be viewed via the TV screen, via online streaming, or through links to video clips, in tandem with the all but inevitable campaign commercials now being broadcast across the nation. (History buffs will recall Roger Ailes worked out most of these mechanisms and strategies in Richard Nixon’s successful presidential campaign in 1968, and now he is the man behind Fox News.)

Moreover, in much the same way as with television ratings for the more usual run of programmes, the respective audience shares for these three competing programme narratives – are they clear and convincing, do they explain or confound, do they drive audiences away with boredom, incredulity, or too much complexity? – largely translates into measures of political support.

Let’s look at the contents of these three shows. First there has been “The Impeachment Show”, starring the unflappable Congressman Adam Schiff as ringmaster, with scowling Congressman Devin Nunes in the black hat, and a string of serious, sombre, intelligent, dedicated career civil servants, including diplomats, and several political appointees as daily guest stars. Then, there is the Democratic nomination process series, “Nomination! – Battleground Version”, in what appears to be an 18-person game show where there can only be one final winner. And then there is the new Trump show, “Donald Trump as an Actual President”, where the president actually appears to be doing some of the things more normal presidents usually do as a matter of course.

First let’s look at the quadrennial US electoral process that is grinding on in “Nomination! – Battleground Version”. With the late additions of former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and the multi-billionaire, 77-year-old, slightly pudgy, divorced, Jewish, three-term former New York City mayor/entrepreneur/philanthropist/freedom of speech supporter, Michael Bloomberg, there are 18 individuals, each of whom must have awoken at three in the morning with the idea that they (if everything would break just right) could be president.

This wide-open, multi-character, but very untidy process is largely due to fact formal party structures have far less influence or heft in US candidate selection than in other places, despite the inevitable complaints by disappointed losing candidates about “the party establishment”. Instead, it is money that is “the mother’s milk of politics”, as the late Jesse Unruh (the longtime speaker of the California legislature) had said, and thus it has a great, even outsized amount of influence in politics. It costs a lot of money to participate in this long nomination slog as polling costs money; staffing costs money; travel and telecommunications costs money; raising money costs money. You have to pay to play.

(While we’re at this, let’s clarify one thing about all this money. Largely, that it doesn’t make candidates’ policy choices for them. Rather, money finds candidates whom the potential providers of all that money like or agree with on issues, personality, or electability that becomes the trick to successful fundraising.)

As a result, the contributors and bundlers of contributions from others matter. Now even more so than before, following the “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision of nearly a decade ago that determined money was the functional equivalent of free speech, thereby opening the financial sluice gates to those ubiquitous political action committees (PACs) and super PACs. Still, money harvesting has also been altered by electronic crowdfunding and social media solicitations, and those contributions tied to social media outreach are increasingly filling the campaign contribution space. Raising small contributions becomes administratively much easier than before.

Certainly, at this point, there is no real candidate competition for the Republican nomination, and that, of course, remains the incumbent president. Still, should the president seriously falter, or should “The Impeachment Show” really take off, there are a couple of people readers might want to watch. These two are making sure their names are out there in public, just in case Trump is actually removed from office. Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the UN, has just launched her not-quite-tell-all book on her experiences as a national figure. And there is the current vice-president, Mike Pence, who would automatically be president should the incumbent leave office.

Within the Democratic Party’s gaggle of would-be nominees, these candidates should be divided into three broad categories.

First are the best known, well-acknowledged, front runners, former vice-president Joe Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and now, most improbably, the young South Bend, Indiana mayor, Pete Buttigieg. They are now bunched at the top, with Biden unsteadily staying first in national polls.

The second tranche consists of others jockeying for their breakout moment, people like California Senator Kamala Harris, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, IT entrepreneur Andrew Yang, and Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, among others.

The third group consists of the two disruptors, former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Michael Bloomberg. They both apparently saw an opening on that so-called, moderate middle lane, with the presumed, apparent faltering of Biden to sew it up early.

So far, the main action has been in a series of multi-candidate debates that often have done more to confuse than clarify. These debates have largely revolved around personalities and the finances or viability of more left-wing policies such as Medicare-for-all, wealth taxes, free college tuition for all and university tuition debt relief, with very little mention of international topics. Still, traditionally, voters decide on kitchen table issues, absent a major, ongoing international crisis. The catchphrase, “It’s the economy, stupid,” may still apply.

Under normal circumstances, the holiday season from Thanksgiving to Christmas and New Year would offer a brief respite for most audience members to enjoy families and seasonal broadcast fare, but candidates are criss-crossing Iowa for the caucus voting that comes in January, then they are moving quickly on to the next votes in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

Iowa and New Hampshire are entirely unrepresentative of the nation as a whole, as well as Democratic Party supporters. Both states are mostly white, older in age, small town or rural, but because they are first in line, they become bellwethers of possible voter – and broadcast audience – sentiment and as a way to build some momentum and to clarify messages. The primary in South Carolina, by contrast, is heavily African American among Democrats – and that community appears to continue to be solid for Biden, based on longtime loyalties.

But here’s the thing: come 3 March, a kind of major rating sweepstakes moment occurs. There will be a 14-state, simultaneous primary, with votes in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, among Democrats Abroad, and in Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia. That day will be a very rich delegate haul for someone or some bodies, and the results are certain to be a highlight of this programme’s season. A candidate who does well on that day might well establish momentum and an unstoppable run. And be the star.

Meanwhile, the second big, competing show is “The Impeachment Show”. As we all know, the core of the charges against Trump, in addition to all the other possible ones, is that he had used state resources – the properly appropriated arms for Ukraine (fighting off the Russians) and a promise of a president-to-president meeting with the new Ukrainian president – to lever something deeply personal.

That would have been a public promise by the Ukrainian president to investigate the former Democratic vice-president’s son and former VP Joe Biden on the false notion and delusion Ukraine was guilty of 2016 election interference, and not Russia. By doing this, the putative lead challenger for 2020 would be fatally harmed. Or, as Trump had said in the phone call, “I have a favour to ask.”

As the evidence stands now, the web of connections reaches ever deeper into the Trump administration and the intricate business tangles of his attorney, Rudy Giuliani. And this is even if the president never explicitly uttered the charge to carry out that quid pro quo/bribery act – or else.

As things stand now, the intelligence committee will issue its report and recommendations this week, and then the House Judiciary Committee will vote articles of impeachment by Christmas, potentially including a charge of obstruction of Congress, language familiar from prior impeachment processes, and based on the refusal by the White House to authorise numerous officials to testify. Thereafter, the full House will pass these articles of impeachment, but it likely will not pass in the Senate. Regardless, there will be hours of gavel-to-gavel broadcast coverage, and frequent eruptions of Trumpian rhetorical excess on Fox News in some other competing broadcasts.

And that leads us to the third new series, the “Donald Trump as an Actual President” reality show. This new programme entrant into the rating war to seize the national audience and narrative has had a promising launch, what with the president visiting the troops in Afghanistan (and the startling, even pre-emptive announcement of imminent negotiations with the Taliban).

But much will hinge on how he plays himself at the Nato seventieth anniversary meeting, and how his interference into military justice ultimately plays out with the larger military community. Meanwhile, he continues to lash out against longtime allies such as Japan and South Korea over basing costs. There are also those zero-sum, transactional trade and financial policies, such as the current trade conflict with China.

However, one of the sub-themes of this new show continues to demonstrate its star’s incomprehensible kowtowing and embraces of authoritarians, wannabe authoritarians, and semi-authoritarians from Kim Jong-un to Vladimir Putin to Rodrigo Duterte, to Recep Erdogan, and on to a lockstep with Binyamin Netanyahu. This show still misses the more usual high-toned narrative thread one might expect; instead focusing on “Stayin’ Alive”, and letting the Trump cult carry him across the finish line in November, and against that “deep state” he rails against.

But, in this more complex broadcast environment, will this be enough? Or, will “The Impeachment Show” get its sea legs and will “Nomination! – Battleground Version” distil itself around a single leading candidate, before the circular firing squad clutters up the airwaves with confusing subplots and a diminishing audience? Stay tuned. DM


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