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Some years ago, a producer from VH1 called to find out if I might want to appear on what she described as a “documentary series” about candy. I had just written a whole book on the subject, so I said sure.
A few weeks later, a seven-person crew landed on my doorstep and somehow wedged themselves into my tiny Somerville apartment. The producer hauled out a black binder that detailed the “scenes” we would be filming over the next three days. These included a scene in which I would fondle packages of candy in a grocery store, and another in which I would roll around in candy on my bed.
I was profoundly confused, because I thought the crew was there to interview me about the history of the confectionary industry in America, and the deeper meaning of candy in our lives, not to stage events designed to make me appear crazy. In other words: I didn’t realize that reality TV had invaded my life.
The aim of this quintessentially American genre is not to capture reality, but to craft spectacle, to enthrall, to distract us from the disorder of our lives by putting the shame and shamelessness of others on national display.
I’ve been thinking about my brush with reality TV over the past few nights, as I’ve struggled to watch what the media has been obediently referring to as the Republican National Convention.
We all know "The Bachelor" isn’t really about trying to help single people find true love, in the same way we all know Trumpism isn’t about making America great.
Of course, all political conventions are, to some degree, a spectacle. But this year’s RNC has done away with the notion that the party should craft an actual platform, with concrete policy goals. That stuff is for public servants, who are suckers.
Today’s GOP isn’t a party at all. It’s an ongoing television product crafted by (and for) a lazy, insecure man who has never lived in the nation he leads. Born into wealth, Donald Trump failed as a businessman, repeatedly, before landing in a world where his bottomless bluster proved of value: Reality TV. The fraudulence of the genre is, paradoxically, the whole point. We all know "The Bachelor" isn’t really about trying to help single people find true love, in the same way we all know Trumpism isn’t about making America great.
By the dictates of Reality TV, the point of the presidency isn’t to run the federal government. The point is to stage televised spectacles — photo ops, executive order signings, press conferences — that make it appear as if you are running the federal government, when what you are doing all day is watching TV and talking on the phone and trolling on social media and playing golf.
And thus, speakers at the RNC Reality Show have been left to toggle between two equally propagandistic modes: authoritarian triumphalism and apocalyptic paranoia. America has never been stronger (thanks to Dear Leader!) and also, America is a hellhole that will burn to the ground if Dear Leader isn’t renewed for another four years.
It’s all just a show designed to distract Americans from the state of the country, which is why none of the speakers will acknowledge that 177,000 plus Americans are dead of the virus Trump ignored, or that six million are infected, or that 30 million Americans are unemployed. Which is why the Secretary of State — in a clear violation of federal law — mouthed the company line when everyone knows that America’s global reputation is in tatters. It’s why we heard from an endless parade of gun-happy white lunatics even as another Black man was gunned down by the police. It’s why a president who has relentlessly demagogued immigrants chose to preside over a citizenship ceremony. Of course, it’s total BS. That’s what good Reality TV is.
As we learned in 2016, in an attention economy, what we choose to watch is what we eventually become.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the GOP might have attempted to articulate policies aimed at getting COVID-19 under control, and restoring the economy. That time is gone. The party spent decades ignoring racial justice and climate change and income inequality. It is now dedicated to denialism as a way of life. Reality got too scary, so they chose Reality TV instead.
As we learned in 2016, in an attention economy, what we choose to watch is what we eventually become. This may help explain all the panicky whining about “cancel culture” this time around, as well as the current regime’s efforts to subvert the election.
For all their calculated ranting, they know that most Americans are tired of Trump. If those citizens cast a ballot, his Reality Show will be canceled for good.
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