Behind the Trump reality show

Krattenmaker-tomBy Tom Krattenmaker
 Award-winning Portland-based writer
Recent book: The Evangelicals you Don’t Know
Tom’s article also featured on USA Today

The Republican presidential race is getting more interesting by the day. For all the wrong reasons.

As if the suspense from the neck-and-neck competition between front-runners Donald Trumpand Ted Cruz weren’t enough, the media-consuming public has been regaled by the candidates’ dramatic rhetoric and incendiary attacks on one another. And just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, Sarah Palin wrote herself into the script with her Trump endorsement — the day after news came out that her 26-year-old son, Track, had been arrested on a charge of domestic violence.


If all of this is beginning to seem like reality TV — the kind that “entertains” through melodrama highlighting human foolishness and misbehavior at its worse — that’s probably because it is just that.

Remember: Trump’s platform is built around his reality TV stardom. And his newest celebrity endorser, Palin, starred in a couple of reality shows that did not, alas, match Trump’s for sustained ratings success.

Media profiles have noted that Trump, like Palin when she was a candidate for vice president, has not concerned himself greatly with mastering policy details and the facts about the complicated challenges facing our country. The emphasis instead is on performance.

As Adrian Wooldridge writes in The New York Times, no recent American politicalcandidate has blurred the line between politics and entertainment as thoroughly as Trump. Note, too, the nature of Trump’s criticism of Jeb Bush. It’s for a performance-related deficit: his alleged lack of energy.

From this perspective, who cares how Trump would actually implement his proposed ban on Muslims entering the country, or how he would get the Mexicans to pay for that wall he promises to build “when” he is president? None of this is serious. It’s the theatrical value that counts.

Many in the news media are in on it, too. This was never clearer to me than when I spent an hour or so watching CNN in the run-up to the GOP debate it hosted back in December. Commercials hyped the upcoming debate like some kind of mixed martial arts free-for-all. An analysts panel assembled in the style of a pro football pre-game show dissected the latest horse-race data and what kind of tactics the candidates were likely to employ on game day.

I realized that had I switched over to ESPN, I would have seen much the same — although the focus would have been on the real games coming up that weekend.

Yes, this is entertainment that’s hard to resist. But where is the attention to the serious, albeit less entertaining, questions that ought to concern us when we approach the history-altering national day of reckoning that is a presidential election?

How are we going to face up to the so-called Islamic State? To the stagnation of wages and financial insecurity vexing working-class Americans? To the reality of inexorable demographic changes and persistent racial inequities? Serious minds want to know.

The Democrats’ contest has offered its occasional silliness and pandering, such as Hillary Clinton’s habit of calling on children who lob absurdly precocious softball questions. But on the whole, it has been more sober and serious (and less entertaining) by far. Bernie Sanders, to his credit, has refused to be drawn into the kinds of attacks on Clinton — about her husband’s sex-related controversies, for example — that would be irresistible to a less disciplined politician, and that no doubt await her should she secure the nomination and face the GOP nominee. In other words, Sanders has resisted the kinds of attacks that would make their battle as interesting as, well, reality TV.

The fact that the Democratic debates have focused more on substance and policy, combined with the lack of a bigger-than-life reality television star, is why the Democrats’ TV ratings pale next to those generated by the must-watch television served up by the Republicans.

The Democrats have been, in truth, downright boring compared with the Republicans.

For many of the right reasons.

A member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion in public life and communications director at Yale Divinity School. His latest book is The Evangelicals You Don’t Know.

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