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The Age Of Politainment: How Celebrity Has Devoured Our Civic Culture

Taran Killam, left, Republican presidential candidate and guest host Donald Trump, center, and Darrell Hammond perform during the monologue on "Saturday Night Live", Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015. Trump's 90 minutes in the "SNL" spotlight followed weeks of growing anticipation, increasingly sharp criticism and mounting calls for him to be dropped from the show. (Dana Edelson/ AP)
Taran Killam, left, Republican presidential candidate and guest host Donald Trump, center, and Darrell Hammond perform during the monologue on "Saturday Night Live", Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015. Trump's 90 minutes in the "SNL" spotlight followed weeks of growing anticipation, increasingly sharp criticism and mounting calls for him to be dropped from the show. (Dana Edelson/ AP)

As every bored American knows by now, bankruptcy-addict-turned-reality-TV-star-turned-presidential-brand-manager Donald Trump hosted "Saturday Night Live" last weekend. He bombed.

The entire show was an absolute dud. Rather than confronting Trump, the cast turned his overt racism and insane policy goals into punchless punch lines. The whole limp endeavor was yet another chance for a greedy monomaniac to build his nihilistic brand.

But the show was, in some sense, a lot more than that. It was a kind of snapshot of our civic culture, an historical moment in which politics and entertainment are virtually interchangeable. The guiding principle in both endeavors is painfully easy to identify: just follow the money.

the act of running for high office isn’t about loser stuff like governance and public morality. It’s about childish demagoguery and hairstyles and brand building.

Take a look at the ratings garnered by Trump’s abysmal turn on "Saturday Night Live": they were the highest the show has enjoyed in four years.

So what if the “content” actually sucked? That’s not the point. The point is that people watched and the sponsors paid.

This wouldn’t be so depressing if Trump’s influence were limited to late-night television. But he’s actually the presidential front-runner (for now) of one of the major parties of the planet’s sole remaining superpower.

What are his actual qualifications for this office? The fact that he gets great ratings.

Welcome to the Age of Politainment! An era in which the act of running for high office isn’t about loser stuff like governance and public morality. It’s about childish demagoguery and hairstyles and brand building.

The cultural theorist Neil Postman predicted all this 30 years ago, in an eerily prescient book called “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” His essential point was Americans were in the process of self-tranquilizing themselves to death with television and celebrity culture.

“Americans no longer talk to each other,” he observed, “they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.”

Trump is our lead dog here. He is proof positive that our vaunted free press will sell out to whatever lunatic wins them Arbitrons...

The central politician of Postman’s era was President Ronald Reagan, a former actor who served two terms as governor of California.

The notion that the most written about “politician” of our age is Trump would have been impossible to envision back then. Most of us would have said, “No way. Politics is a serious business. The planet is in too much trouble to mess around with lightweights.”

But in the Age of Politainment our political system is just another branch of our popular culture, slavishly devoted to entertainment and brazenly hostile toward the very idea of governance.

Trump is our lead dog here. He is proof positive that our vaunted free press will sell out to whatever lunatic wins them Arbitrons, which is great news, as always, for the monied interests who actually control our political apparatus.

To quote Postman again:

When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.

To take the long view, the upcoming election isn’t just a race between defenders of the wealthy and those who seek to repair the middle class. Or between those who deny the science of environmental ruin and those who accept it.

It’s a contest that pits us against ourselves.

Will Americans choose to tune in to the painful realities of our historical moment? Will they seek leaders who offer meaningful solutions to our looming crises? Or will they tune into Trump’s next televised boondoggle?

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