Looking back, it’s easy to pinpoint the moment when American politics went bananas. The date was Feb. 10, and the venue was the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., an early showcase for GOP Presidential aspirants. At the last moment, a new speaker was added to the roster: Donald Trump.
Trump was not known to be a) a Republican or b) a Presidential candidate, so his presence mystified the political press corps. Why would the libertine host of The Celebrity Apprentice want to address a gathering of right-wing social conservatives? His motivation, it turned out, was the same as all the other candidates’: He wanted to steal the show. And Trump did just that, combining his trademark squinty eyed braggadocio with over-the-top denunciations of everyone from Barack Obama to Somali pirates. A political-reality star was born, and soon after, a Republican front-runner.
Trump flamed out after President Obama, incredulous that a “carnival barker,” as he put it, could arouse such excitement, finally produced his long-form birth certificate. But The Donald’s ethos—a potent combination of showmanship, bluster, and pancake makeup—colored the rest of the 2011 campaign season. Even political pros marvel at how reality television is influencing the race for the world’s most important job. “The spin room is obsolete,” says Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s 2008 campaign manager. “The pundits are obsolete. You have huge numbers of people tuning in to the debates because on any given day it’s the most interesting show on television. And the audience delivers an immediate, harsh, instantaneous verdict no different than they would for Clay Aiken.” (For those who can’t bear to watch, Aiken became a star after the second season of American Idol.)
It’s no secret that the debates are the engine of all this madness. There will be 19 altogether, spaced a week or so apart, approximating the schedule of a prime-time reality series. Ratings have been unexpectedly strong. (The Dec. 10 ABC News (DIS) debate attracted 7.6 million viewers; A Charlie Brown Christmas, a few nights later, drew 6.4 million.) Republicans may be particularly receptive to this gamesmanship-as-entertainment. According to Will Feltus, senior vice-president of National Media Research, Planning & Placement, a media buyer for political ads, viewership research shows that the audiences for popular reality shows such as Survivor skew toward politically active Republicans. And what is a Presidential primary but an elaborate, high-stakes contest for survival?
Civic leaders are forever bemoaning the declining rates of participation in public life. So this sudden surge of attention may sound like welcome news. But for the most part it’s a pretty shallow form of audience engagement. There’s been no clamor for the candidates to address the litany of problems that most of the world is frantic about—from the European debt crisis to Middle East instability to the prospect of a Chinese economic slowdown. (Mitt Romney’s 59-point economic plan was ridiculed by other candidates for its comprehensiveness.) Instead, viewers seem mostly drawn by the same factors that attract them to Dancing with the Stars—the thrill of watching famous people perform (and screw up) in high-pressure situations and the opportunity to render judgment on the lot of them. “Everyone imagines themselves as Paula Abdul,” says Schmidt.
Presidential contests have always attracted oddballs and glory-seekers. The difference this time is that they’ve become the front-runners. A year ago, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich were considered only slightly more plausible contenders than Trump. Yet at various points since Trump’s collapse, each has taken the lead, often after saying something ridiculous or outlandish, as when Perry called Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke “treasonous.” Meanwhile, credentialed early favorites like Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney have mostly fallen flat.
This fixation on spectacle has had the pernicious effect of pushing the national conversation away from where it belongs. We’ve learned plenty about Cain’s 9-9-9 plan and its various imitators, none of which has a prayer of becoming law or, if one did, of living up to the claims made on its behalf. We’ve witnessed goofs ranging from Perry’s “oops” to Romney’s $10,000 bet and seen Newt transform from media-bashing Omarosa to kindly uncle. But after a year of campaigning in advance of the first caucus on Jan. 3, we have yet to learn much about how any of the candidates—major or minor—would deal with the problems the next President is likely to face.
Maybe that’s just a byproduct of participatory democracy in an age when opinions can be registered by text message and “participants” are often couch-bound, slack-jawed, and inert. It’s a little disconcerting to imagine that some sizable number of Americans do not distinguish between Clay Aiken and the possible next leader of the free world. But there may yet be hope. In a ratings stunt worthy of sweeps week, the Dec. 27 Republican debate was scheduled to be moderated by the very man who set it all off, Donald Trump. That is, until most of the candidates rebelled, and essentially voted him off the island. This unexpected display of probity and good judgment ended the year on an encouraging note, and makes it a little easier to believe that the survivor, whoever he or she may be, will be up to the job.