Ronald Reagan spoke to his contemporaries in the tone of the eloquent, dignified film actor that he was. His appealing style was complemented by a dignified, eloquent, and inspiring leadership style that made it clear he, and America, were to be disrespected only at great cost.
Imagine yourself a voter in 1980. For you, film – that is to say, the art of telling stories and connecting with audiences on the screen – had been the sort of entertainment you and generations of Americans before you had been accustomed to.
Now, return to 2016. While the art of storytelling is still alive and well – I would argue more on the small screen than the big ones, these days – another kind of entertainment has bloomed and flourished for the past several generations.
At the risk of sounding snobbish, low-brow entertainment has become the norm. What we watch today are badly behaved housewives tearing out each others’ hair, stories about how sex sent people the ER, shows about naked dating, women kicking each other in the face, and finding out on live TV which of the five guys is the father.
We can’t get enough celebrity sex tapes, raunchy dance routines at awards ceremonies, cheap shots, insults, name calling, and drama. In 2016, internet porn just might be the world’s biggest industry.
Massively popular is “sports entertainment” (Vince McMahon’s term for what our dads called wrastlin’ in the days of “Hacksaw” Jimmy Duggan). WWE, previously WWF (the “E” is for entertainment) is a multibillion dollar worldwide phenomenon, and we all know what it regularly features. Pro wrestling by design is a cauldron of everything both good and bad in our society – cheap shots, cheating, insults, tawdry sexuality, skimpy clothes, and also the rise and tragic falls of heroic figures.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not proposing some solution to low-brow entertainment, or that one is needed. I have, in fact, been watching WWE for 20 years. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Donald Trump shave Vince McMahon’s head after assaulting him outside the ring at Wrestlemania in 2007. I miss the days of Stone Cold smashing together cans of beer after stomping a mud hole in a referee or some other loser, or predicting Triple H, the heel, would win by cheating after hitting his opponent with a sledgehammer while the referee was conveniently distracted.
Pro wrestling is great at creating characters, good guys and bad guys, whose goodness or badness is universally recognized by audiences that dutifully cheer or boo, and often-unpredictable, shock-value storylines that seem spontaneous.
Donald Trump uses all the tricks of a pro wrestler as a presidential candidate. He’s successful because he’s an expert marketer, reader of audiences, creator of personas, and instigator of emotional reactions. He’s actually been involved with wrestling itself for some time, maybe learning some tricks from McMahon himself – or teaching him some. I sum up his “Battle of the Billionaires” WWE appearances here.
1980 had Ronald Reagan the film actor. 2016 has pro wrestling protege Donald Trump. Given the changes in the kind of entertainment our society enjoys and has gotten used to – that people have been immersed in since my dad was growing up – the reality of Donald Trump the viable politician should come as no surprise. The public’s shrugged shoulders at the vulgarity of his comments should surprise no one who has lived in the trenches of the “unwashed masses”…I count myself among them.
Which brings me to the events of this weekend. We saw a Trump event in Chicago shut down because of violent protesters, and some Trump supporters returned in-kind. In Ohio, an angry protester rushed the podium in an effort to steal the mike and proclaim Trump a racist. Trump, for his part, looked willing to jump the guy had he not been surrounded by secret service agents.
And while thuggery is no new phenomenon on the ends-justify-the-means, subjectivist-ethics left, Trump has hardly risen above as Reagan certainly would have. He’s offered to pay the legal fees if his supporters did the cops’ job and “escorted” protesters out of the venue.
In what looked like a pro wrestling skit, one Trump supporter sucker punched a protester in the face as he was being peacefully escorted out of an event. You could almost hear Jim Ross shouting, “Oh my God, has the man no dignity!? This could be a real slobberknocker!” (That’s no diss to J.R., whose commentary I miss “bigly” at the announce table).
Trump also tweeted to Bernie Sanders that if Sander-nistas were going to show up at Trump events, Trumpkins would show up at Sanders events.
Bernie Sanders is lying when he says his disruptors aren't told to go to my events. Be careful Bernie, or my supporters will go to yours!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 13, 2016
There’s a distinctly ominous tone here, especially considering Trump’s blasé view of sucker punches and violent clashes. In a democratic republic that traditionally abhors the condoning of political violence, it’s a symbol of something.
There’s no place for violence in American politics – that philosophy and belief is what makes our country so great.
That’s certainly not to say there hasn’t been violence in American politics. Bullets have taken down many presidents and other leaders in politics. Violent protests happen. The difference is that in America, we have typically mourned violence and canonized murdered leaders, regardless of their contemporary popularity with this side of the aisle or that.
A movie celebrated by the Left that depicted the assassination of President George W. Bush may have presaged a shift in that attitude.
Donald Trump is a character created by contemporary culture in a society that is used to seeing things that would’ve shocked the average person just a few generations ago. Yet the king of one-liners on Twitter has now accumulated real political power.
(By the way, here’s the quintessential Trump Twitter construction, colorful declaratory statements that often attack people rather than ideas, and usually end in exclamation points.)
The failing @nytimes is truly one of the worst newspapers. They knowingly write lies and never even call to fact check. Really bad people!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 13, 2016
Is it unrealistic to imagine that this bridging of two separate worlds – the culture of the trashy with the ornate edifice of politics – could also erode our revulsion for political violence?
Ironically, the vast majority who still abhor the idea of violence entering the political process will feel a sort of sympathy for Trump, who is now the victim of left-wing thuggery from whom violence has never been a turnoff.
In this way, political violence that Trump has done little to tamp, and in fact has stoked, could become a downward spiral in American political discourse – such as it is today.