We are fascinated by the President’s shtick. When we tune to our favorite news channels or read what’s printed, his latest mockeries are the headlines and top-of-the-show stories. As defined by Google, “shtick is a gimmick, comic routine, style of performance, etc., associated with a particular person”. Trump’s shtick attracts more interest than any other topic on planet Earth. It’s huge. He perfected it as a reality TV performer. In the commercial entertainment environment, ratings are the only measures that matter.
I think about the similarities between theater and politics when I retrieve the newspaper from my doorstep every morning. As I work at my computer, I avoid checking the newsfeeds. If I relied on my smart phone to feel connected on social media, I’d have to resist clicking links to Trump’s latest bit of shtick as I went about my business. I avoid cable news. I feel as if I’m hunkered down in a blizzard of Trumpnews, shoulders hunched against the bit storm.
We are being intentionally manipulated by the President to keep his show at the top of the ratings lists. In Trump’s value system, our opinions are less significant than our attention. In our media ecology, in which Trump is the dominant creature, it matters far less what we think of him than that we think of him at all.
Throughout the 2015-2016 primary election season, he kept his place on the podium because we tuned-in to see him play The Fool, a stock theatrical character whose role is to mock The King. He won the ratings war and, contrary to common sense, succeeded in converting his ratings into enough votes to win the general election. The problem, of course, is that he is now The King, but still plays The Fool. It’s his shtick.
Another parallel to theater has to do with our emotional investment in the outcome. We watch the show if we care. There are no stakes higher than the United States Presidency. In every plot, whether it be a children’s story or a Shakespeare play, the audience has to believe that the outcome matters. Our interest intensifies in proportion to the level of danger or to the value of the prize. In the media world, intense interest is the coin of the realm. Trump’s “great again” boasts inflate the likelihood of reward. Similarly, his exaggerated warnings heighten our perception of risk. He refers to the threat of terrorism and the likelihood of a North Korean attack out of all proportion to the actual risks because these exaggerations intensify our focus on him.
We can take the parallels between politics and theater too far – one is pretense and the other painfully real. But that doesn’t mean that the similarities are inconsequential. Many Americans, almost half of us, choose not to vote. Some of the non-participants think the news is only theater. To them, all politicians are acting with no more concern for their interests than someone playing a character on a TV show. Despite all the bluster from our capitols, they are convinced that their daily lives are not influenced by whoever wins an election. For these citizens, it’s just another show.
Our urges to be entertained and to learn are both powerful. In combination, they are the basis of a kind of addiction that the news media and Donald Trump feed in partnership. There are important and meaningful distinctions between entertainment and learning, but they are distinctions that matter little in the news business. The news shows have to be sensational and emotionally engaging else the ratings plummet. Trump’s shtick got him to the Presidency, our fascination so great that all other stories were minimized to satisfy our interest. He hijacked the news. Call me old fashioned, but I think we have to be able to distinguish between shtick and substance.
I still harbor a hope that Trump can change from Fool to King. I watch the news now to learn whether the Chorus, the sensible populace, will prevail as it did in ancient Greek comedies. When the Chorus failed, it was a tragedy.